Writing about Reading: 36 Yalta Boulevard

September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

In Brano Sev, the hero of Olen Steinhauer’s novel 36 Yalta Boulevard, you can see hints of Milo Weaver, the hero of his later novel The Tourist. Both men are spies. Both are lonely men, isolated from their families and friends by the work that they do. Both know how to stand up to torture, and both have father issues.

But whereas Milo Weaver is an American spy working in Europe in today’s world, Brano Sev spies for his Communist masters, the Ministry of State Security — headquartered at 36 Yalta Boulevard — in 1967. Yalta, as the windowless building is known, is not a place you want to see the inside of — because most who go in never come out. After botching a mission in Vienna, Brano returns to his own country and finds himself inside Yalta, and this time he’s the one being interrogated, instead of the one doing the interrogation. Stripped of his rank, he narrowly avoids being sent to the work camps and is instead assigned a job in a factory. But soon his old boss comes to him with another mission, and a chance to redeem himself.

Redemption, however, does not come easily. As a State Security officer, Brano is hated and feared by most of the citizens of his county. His home town doesn’t welcome him back, his family isn’t particularly glad to see him, and even the local police distrust him. Only when he finally returns to Vienna does Brano find a modicum of happiness. The more he investigates what happened on that botched mission, the more his new life is threatened — until he is finally forced to choose between happiness and duty.

36 Yalta Boulevard is a mystery, and a good one. But like all of Steinhauer’s novels, it’s populated with real, flawed people — characters who come alive on the page, even if that page is the only time they appear in the book. I’ve praised Steinhauer’s writing so extensively in my reviews of his other books that I feel like I’m repeating myself, so suffice it to say that this book is every bit as rich and tense and perfectly tuned as all of the author’s other novels.

Steinhauer set five books in Brano Sev’s nameless Eastern Bloc country, and 36 Yalta Boulevard is the third of these. I have called the set a series in my reviews of Bridge of Sighs and The Confession, but it’s really just five literary mysteries with the same setting and shared characters. You could pick up any one of these books and start reading, without having to have read the books that come earlier. In that regard, it reminds me of the novels of Jonathan Carroll, who recycles characters constantly. It’s one of my favorite things about Carroll’s books, actually, and I do something similar in my own work because it’s fun for me as a reader. But Carroll’s books aren’t a series, and although Steinhauer’s Yalta books have more of a connection, they really aren’t a series either. They’re just really good novels with a shared setting and interconnected characters.

Next up is Richard Kadrey’s new novel, Devil Said Bang, and then it’s back to Steinhauer. I really cannot get enough of his books.

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