Part of the appeal of a thriller set in a foreign locale is anticipating a twofer: a book that can be part mystery, part travelogue. But after reading Michael Genelin’s “Requiem for a Gypsy,” the fourth entry in his Commander Jana Matinova series, I will definitely not be packing my bags for Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
Few other mysteries have had a setting so unrelentingly gloomy that you wonder why anyone would choose to live in such a place. It is not merely that much of Genelin’s action takes place in seedy, rundown parts of town: “Older areas are often more beautiful than other, newer locales. With Kreuzberg, that wasn’t the case. It was rundown, dilapidated, decaying.” Or that the weather goes from bad to worse: “Some winters are cold; others are colder. But there is always one that stays in memory as the worst.”
It’s that the author seems to have so little affection for the city in which, after all, he makes his characters spend so much time. Think of the gritty Los Angeles neighborhoods of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels or the New York City church basements in which Lawrence Block has Matt Scudder attend AA meetings. Though lacking in glamour, these sites have a magnetism that explains why richly drawn characters are drawn to them.
But what “Requiem for a Gypsy” lacks as a travelogue, it more than makes up for as a thriller: An old man is the victim of a hit-and-run in Paris. A young man’s death on a shooting expedition with friends may not be what it seems. A political assassination leaves a police colonel and the intended target wounded and the target’s wife dead.
All that in the first 23 pages. Buckle up, this is going to be a wild ride.
At the heart of all this action is Jana Matinova, a police commander who is cool, methodical and distant. That distance winds up being both fascinating and frustrating for the reader. Early on, we learn that Jana is a grandmother whose daughter has died and who seems oddly estranged from her granddaughter. Let’s give Genelin credit for a female protagonist who is not a yoga-practicing 30-something! We want to know more about how Jana came to be the woman she is, but while there are enough characters for a reader to need a scorecard, Jana really interacts with only two of them.
One is her boss, Col. Trokan, who is injured in the assassination attempt and upon his return to work is given a party by his fellow officers. Jana doesn’t attend, instead bringing pastries to his office later in the day. When he asks her why she didn’t show up, her response offers a too-rare glimpse at the friend she can be to those she holds dear: “You can’t have personal moments at parties.”
The second significant person in her life is an odd, homeless, vaguely criminal 13-year-old named Em, who shows up on Jana’s doorstep one cold (of course) night selling handmade earrings. The girl quickly becomes a surrogate in Jana’s life.
Em makes Jana vulnerable in ways that seem inexplicable even to her and leave the reader yearning for a greater understanding of the older woman’s psyche. Toward the end of the novel, Em asks Jana, “Have you figured out why everyone is being shot?” The answer is no, but by now the reader cares less about the mystery itself than about what gets under the usually cool commander’s skin.
Nonetheless, that mystery — with its roots in a World War II money-laundering scheme — is rich in compelling plot twists and sobering history lessons. It also showcases Genelin’s skills as a writer. A meeting midway through the novel involving Jana and a criminal from whom she must get information is as taut and perfectly choreographed a scene as you are likely to find.
Ultimately, this novel is a bit like a trip to an amusement park on a day when the skies threaten rain. The roller coasters are still thrilling, but the dark clouds taint the day with a gloom that gets in the way of the fun.
Grant is the editor of KidsPost.
REQUIEM FOR A GYPSY
By Michael Genelin
Soho Crime.356 pp. $25