A dark geography

Sheryl Beauvais writes a regular mystery column on SN&R’s book blog, Bibliolatry.

How does Slovakian noir differ from American noir? Not in the number of dead bodies, nor in the weight of the main character’s personal tragedy. These are both prerequisites for the dark genre and are present in abundance in Siren of the Waters, the first novel from Michael Genelin.

As an international mystery, Siren provides more for the reader than depositing bloody and charred bodies in exotic settings. International noir supplies all the thrills and mental exercise of the mystery genre while also offering a glimpse into another culture. The change in mental scenery is refreshing, although it’s tourism into troubled areas, for that’s where the best stories lurk.

Few areas are more troubled than the Slovakia of Siren. Still struggling to find its way after the fall of its communist government, the country and its people are haunted by their recent totalitarian past, and its present-day democracy is on shaky legs. Trafficking in people and drugs are major growth industries, and police corruption is practically a given. However, the protagonist, police commander Jana Matinova, is a notable exception. Honorable while wryly impatient with less competent colleagues, Jana rises fully to the expectation of a noir hero.

Siren opens with a fiery crash which kills a van full of women and one man. The women were prostitutes, and the man carried two passports with different names. In addition, the van burns intensely, and the odor of an accelerant mixes with the scent of gasoline. Clearly, this was more than a simple traffic accident.

These circumstances elevate the investigation beyond mere local concern, and Jana is assigned to an international task force in human trafficking. There, she meets her estranged daughter’s husband, and we are introduced to the anticipated personal tragedy: Jana had smuggled her daughter out of Slovakia years earlier to keep her safe from potentially deadly consequences of the conflict between Jana’s politically active husband Daniel and the communist government. Daniel was shot soon afterward, and her daughter—with little understanding of the situation—blamed Jana for his death. Her daughter has never forgiven her, but Jana wishes only to speak to her daughter and to see her grandchild.

The personal story unfolds as a subplot to the investigation. Other members of the international task force are less emotionally charged and, in some cases, less than honest. Additional murders occur: A former prostitute is shot and dumped into the Danube River and a United Nations bureaucrat is stabbed in his hotel room. Jana suspects both deaths connect to the ones in the van, though she is not sure exactly how. As she continues her investigation, she is also targeted for murder.

No doubt at least part of the stylistic similarity between Siren and noir set in the United States is because Genelin is an American. A former Los Angeles attorney, Genelin has experience of Slovakia as a result of his service as a consultant from the U.S. Department of Justice. In this way, Genelin exemplifies a number of British and American authors who set their novels in nations outside North America and the United Kingdom. Like Colin Cotterill’s Laotian mysteries, John Burdett’s Thai mysteries and Matt Beynon Rees’ Palestinian refugee camp mysteries—to name a few excellent examples—Genelin is not a native of the country of which he writes.

Perhaps this phenomenon is due to greater access of writers who are comfortable in English to publishers who release books in that language. Or perhaps the mystery genre has not yet caught on in a significant way in many non-Western cultures.

But novels set outside Western Europe and North America often feature life under harsh regimes. An extra gift of these international mysteries is a reminder that no matter how much may be wrong in our own lives, things could be much worse. And good noir is good to read, no matter where it is set.