The Ultimate Noir Tale

kertesz.jpg  Detective Story by Imre Kertész

From his prison cell, we receive the rationalization of an interrogator.  Do not call this a confession because the narrator makes it clear he had little to do with the sad affair that he relates.  Yet, he will receive the ultimate punishment. 

Antonio Martens was a police officer in the Criminal Investigation Division who is given the opportunity to be promoted into The Corps, the state police who study their own people under the dictatorship of The Colonel.  Operating without any rules except their own, abuses will occur. Diaz, the head of the unit, works with Martens and a torturer named Rodriguez.  Throughout the book, Martens refers to himself as the “new guy,” and acts as an observer of The Corps and less as a participant.  Yet, he predicts his fate when he knowingly says when this all blows up, he will be the one who suffers and Diaz will disappear without punishment.

When The Colonel’s regime falls in this unnamed Central American country, and Martens ends up on death row for his “crimes,” he asks for the opportunity to write out his account of the Salinas affair.  Federigo Salinas is the head of a department store chain in this country and he believes he is a man who can stay between the central power and the people.  He is wrong.

Imre Kertész certainly knows how the state can impact on a person’s life.  He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1929.  Kertész was imprisoned in two concentration camps during World War II.  He survived his state imposed incarceration and served in the Hungarian Army from 1951 to 1953.  He has worked as a journalist and a translator.  As a writer, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

Federigo’s son, Enrique, is a restless twenty-two year old, ashamed of his family wealth and the uselessness he feels in the current political situation.  Decisions that the young man makes will have consequences for his father.

This book, although written thirty years ago about a different country, is a reflection of the dangers of hiding investigations under the mantle of state preservation.  Hidden prisons, denial of basic legal rights and torture are not unfamiliar subjects to contemporary Americans. The most chilling theme in the book is how the father, a good man at heart with only his family’s best interest in mind, is dragged into the abyss by one simple choice.  In a sense, this book is the ultimate noir tale.

This book should make a great book discussion title as it has so many contemporary echoes.  Also, it has a huge advantage in that it delivers a major message in a minor amount of space, one hundred and twelve pages, thus endearing itself to readers challenge by time.  



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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