Book world: Maureen Corrigan reviews 'The Winter Thief' by Jenny White

(Courtesy Of Norton - Courtesy Of Norton)
By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, March 8, 2010


By Jenny White

Norton. 400 pp. $24.95

Jenny White's new historical suspense novel, "The Winter Thief," is set mostly in Istanbul in 1888, but throughout my reading of it I kept thinking of Ken Loach's award-winning 1995 film, "Land and Freedom." Loach's look at the Spanish Civil War focuses on an idealistic young Brit who joins the International Brigades to fight the fascists. I remember seeing the film with a friend who was uncharacteristically silent afterward. Eventually, he shook off his mood to say one thing in response to the story: "I would have been killed." My companion wasn't being self-aggrandizing; in fact, he was probably right. Loach's movie brought home the fact that our lives are pawns to our convictions as they intersect with the whims of the historical moment. That, too, is the message of White's ambitious novel, which is more interested in exploring the unforeseen consequences of political and personal loyalties than it is in fully cranking up the machinery of the standard thriller.

The novel opens on a scene of passionate naivete that, of course, comes to no good end. Vera Arti is a new bride who has defied her wealthy Armenian family and secretly married a communist organizer named Gabriel. On a snowy Christmas Day in Istanbul, Vera makes her way to the office of an Armenian publisher. In her hands is a copy of "The Communist Manifesto," which she implores the publisher to print so that "the Armenian people will find the strength to resist oppression . . . by joining the International Movement, by standing shoulder to shoulder with other oppressed peoples around the world."

Vera has only an elementary understanding of the rhetoric she's spouting. She gravitated toward communism out of compassion for the suffering masses and because of her love for Gabriel. The newlyweds are merely stopping in Istanbul before they journey to a utopian commune called New Concord, situated in an abandoned monastery in the mountains, where some of their comrades have already settled. Unbeknown to Vera, Gabriel has arranged for a contraband cargo of guns to be shipped to the commune. And, oh yes, he also has robbed the Imperial Ottoman Bank of a sultan's ransom in gold and jewels in order to keep the commune afloat. When Vera is nabbed by the secret police after her foolish excursion to the publisher, Gabriel has to decide whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of his hapless young wife.

Enter Kamil Pasha, the hero of this story, as well as of White's two earlier suspense novels set in 19th-century Turkey. Kamil is a special prosecutor in the secular courts. A moody loner attracted to modern culture, he is drawn into the search for Vera, which puts him at odds with a fiend named Vahid, the head of a rogue branch of the secret police. For vile reasons of his own, Vahid has convinced the sultan that the New Concord commune is allied with a secessionist movement and must be wiped out -- along with the neighboring villages. Realizing that a massacre of innocents is in the making, Kamil charges off with a small contingent of soldiers to do battle with Vahid and his forces.

That's just a skimming summary of the busy plot of "The Winter Thief." White, a professor of anthropology who specializes in Turkey, adroitly tosses in period detail as well as romance, political intrigue and brutal battle scenes. But "The Winter Thief" really distinguishes itself by the intelligence of its smaller moments, when characters take stock of their limitations against the larger demands of history.

During the siege at the monastery, for instance, a philosopher-turned-commune-dweller ruefully reflects on how ill-prepared to fight he is. "I'm a philosopher," he tells an admiring young woman. "We collect the cream clotted at the rim of every civilization. We don't need to see it milked and churned." By the end of the novel, Kamil's own modernist self-doubts about his actions in the aftermath of battle become close to crippling: "He had chosen life over honesty, one kind of justice over another, but he knew not everyone would agree that he had chosen well."

Out of the purest of motives -- a desire for social equality, a yearning for personal happiness, a wish to share a book with a larger audience -- disaster can ensue. That vivid opening image of the ingenuous Vera clasping her incendiary book stays with a reader long after the shooting stops and an uneasy peace has been restored.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on detective fiction at Georgetown University.

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