Writing about Reading: Bridge of Sighs

September 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

With The Bridge of Sighs, Olen Steinhauer cemented his place in my top five favorite writers. He joins Elmore Leonard, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, and Paolo Bacigalupi — all writers I can depend on for a great story well told.

I was a fan of Steinhauer after reading The Tourist, and the hook dug ever deeper as I read the sequels, The Nearest Exit and An American Spy.

From what I can tell, Bridge of Sighs is the first novel Steinhauer wrote. The edges are a bit rougher than his most recent trilogy, but they aren’t that rough. Bridge of Sighs is the first book in a series of five. Set in 1948, it tells the story of Comrade Inspector Emil Brod, the newest edition of the Homicide Division of the State Militia in a country Steinhauer never gets around to naming. We know it isn’t Russia, Germany, Yugoslavia, or a few other Eastern Bloc countries mentioned during the course of the novel. According to other reviewers, the country is something the author made up, a hodgepodge drawn from Steinhauer’s studies abroad.

Brod enters the Homicide Division fresh out of the Academy, but quickly finds it is not at all like his instructors described. His fellow inspectors won’t speak to him, and have left a threatening note in his desk as their only greeting to him. His boss, likewise, doesn’t seem to want Brod around, and only begrudgingly assigns him to a case after Brod demands it.

That’s when things begin to go very wrong.

Soon, Brod finds himself in over his head in more ways than one. As he slowly pieces together the clues to solve a murder, he becomes a bigger and bigger target of some very powerful and deadly people. I know that sounds like the tagline to half of the thrillers out there, but to say more would spoil the story for you.

Suffice it to say, Steinhauer keeps you turning the pages. Bridge of Sighs paints a vivid portrait of post-war life behind the Iron Curtain. The author’s knack for detail is incredible, and had me rereading paragraphs in admiration for his touch. There’s a fine line between creating an evocative setting and dumping in so much detail that it stops the story; Steinhauer knows how to stay on the evocative side.

Likewise, his characters are believably human while also being compelling heroes and villains. The book could have easily fallen prey to “Boris and Natasha” stereotypes, but it does not. Every character is unique, yet utterly realistic. I had no trouble believing their motivations, their actions, and their desires.

If you’re not reading Olen Steinhauer, you are doing yourself a grave disservice. He is a treasure, and I am very glad to have discovered him.

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