Heda Margolius' Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is a noir mystery set in an irrational world.
Innocence and guilt make little difference.
Set in 1950's Prague, Czechoslovakia, the story opens with a quickly solved murder. Someone abuses and kills a child in the projection room of the Horizon Cinema.
Among the women ushers at the theater is Helena Novakova. Her husband Karel was a Communist official unjustly accused of espionage and imprisoned. The deteriorating Communist government has set officials against one another.
Helena is under surveillance for no good reason because her husband is an accused spy. The other ushers all have something to hide.
Then Helena acts to try to help her husband. Her actions bring about a terrible tragedy. And someone murders the policeman investigating the first murder. He is stabbed to death in his car parked on Steep Street outside the theater.
One of the blurbs promoting the book quotes a critic who calls the book Kafkaesque.
The insanity grows. Virtually none of the actions bring about the expected reaction. The book's points of view veer wildly.
Innocence ends with the introduction of several characters we've not seen (or seen fleetingly).
The insanity of the structure of the book reflects the insanity of the world in which Heda Margolius had lived. She was a Holocaust survivor whose own husband was swallowed up in Czechoslovakia's deteriorating Communist chaos.
She remarried and became a translator. Among the books she translated were books by Raymond Chandler whom she admired. Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is her attempt to write a Chandleresque noir novel.
And she succeeds admirably. To me reading Incocence or Murder on Steep Street was like watching the play Waiting for Godot.
If these comments make this book seem like a hard read, that is what I intended. Even the foreign names expressed in several different ways, make the reading hard going.
But the reading is well worth it. Innocence reminded me that the world is not as rational, as cause-and-effect, as I like to think it is. Irrational terror rests behind much of what we do. Innocence or Murder on Steep Street is a scary book.
I highly recommend Incocence or Murder on Steep Street.