Monday, April 03, 2006

Read this book

I've been slow with this. I don't do book reviews and when I write, I don't read as much as I should, but I have been reading The Confession by Olen Steinhauer, a writer I'm honored to have among The Planet's frequent guests.

This is a big book. Not million-page Michener big. I doubt it would stop a bullet if you were to carry it over your heart. But big with big ideas, big gambles that pay off, and big characters who seem to move in and live in your head with their muddy shoes, cigarettes and bad teeth.

Olen writes with such breath-taking courage, and makes it look so effortless, that a reader might be lulled into thinking that all books are this fearless, and I can assure you, most are not.

This is not merely a mystery about a crime. This is a crime novel about deeper mysteries. The mysteries of sex and marriage, of friendship, betrayal and forgiveness, of police work and oppression. Eastern Europe in the 50's was a dangerous, tightly-controlled place to be, where murder investigations carried the added danger of uncovering an inconvenient truth, one that could get an investigator sent to a labor camp, where hard work was not the worst of a prisoner's hardships.

This novel came out in 2004, but I just picked up a new paperback of The Confession, a beautiful edition that St. Martins had the good sense to put out with that terrific hardback cover. If you haven't read The Confession, you've missed an insightful, intelligent, and beautifully written book.

Olen lives in Budapest, and he's said elsewhere that he doesn't do much research. If that's true, he's managed to dream up details of a world that feels more substantial than most of America.

For those who don't know, Olen is one fourth of the blog Contemporary Nomad. Along with Kevin Wignall, Robin Hunt and John Nadler, they manage to post some of the smartest things you can read anywhere on the web. I consider myself fortunate to be numbered among their fans and, I hope, a friend.


Olen Steinhauer said...

A friend, indeed!

Thanks so much for the praise, David. It really means a lot to me.

And since you've questioned it so much, I've lately been reasking myself: Do I research much? I wonder if my refusals are about me not realizing I'm researching. I'm not going through reams of documents in archives or really even interviewing people (or at least very rarely). Usually it's about poking around the internet, sometimes reading a page of a nonfiction book, and getting inspired by a detail in some other work of fiction on that place & time. This is research, so maybe I should stop bullshitting.

Kevin Wignall said...

David, I'm glad you enjoyed "The Confession" - I think it's a terrific book, and you're right about if being courageous. Having read quite a lot of post-war Eastern European fiction, I'm also impressed by how Olen captures the sense and feel of that world.