Today we are fortunate to have Michael Genelin—author, lawyer, and international consultant on governmental reform. Michael is the author of three novels in the crime series featuring police commander Jana Matinova: Siren of the Waters, Dark Dreams, and coming this summer, The Magician’s Accomplice.
Genelin takes the reader into a part of Europe that most are unfamiliar with: Slovakia—yes the Slovakia that was once part of Czechoslovakia. The Washington Post called his second novel “a seething cauldron of crime, corruption, political hypocrisy, and violence.” Canada’s Globe and Mail also had high praise for that work, dubbing it “a gripping novel of psychological suspense with a truly original central character.”
Michael, thanks so much for talking with Scene of the Crime.
First, can you describe your connection Slovakia. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site, do you make frequent trips there?
As a long time specialist in criminal law, I went to Bratislava, Slovakia, on an American Bar Association/US State Department/Department of Justice program to help reform the criminal law system in that country. I was there for 2 ½ years, participating in rewriting the Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure. I was also heavily involved in creating a national anti-corruption government reform. As well, during that same period of time, I also worked in Budapest, Hungary, and briefly in the Czech Republic and Austria, coordinating with organizations such as the UN and EU, and most of the law enforcement agencies in the area. After that I traveled, living around the world working under the auspices of USAID. The work included teaching homicide investigation, trial practices, revision of government procedures, evidence code changes, constitutional changes, and training in anti-corruption investigation and prosecution. The places were as diverse as Palestine, Nepal, South Sudan, Tanzania, Indonesia, etc. I loved all of the countries I worked in but my heart stayed in Slovakia. And, I began going back there to see friends that I had made, and to revitalize my connection with Slovakia and its surrounding states. I will again be going back to Slovakia, and Vienna, this spring.
I love the people in Slovakia. They are kind, generous, brave, and very bright. They worked extremely hard to pull themselves out of the morass that communism had left them in, and working alongside them was an incredible experience for me. As well, Bratislava is incredibly picturesque. It was a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sitting on the Danube just across from the Austrian border, eighty miles from Budapest, and 160 miles from Prague. If you go east you run into Poland and Ukraine.
I think that people know less about Slovakia, and its capital of Bratislava, than any other country in Europe. It’s all very dense, with a mixture of geography and cultures that make it a fascinating area to live and work in, a veritable cornucopia of food, customs, languages, topography and cultures that make for good stories. And since most people in the US know very little about it, it’s a natural for writing about.
Did you consciously set out to use Slovakia as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I can’t help but make the people and the “turf” a character in my books. It’s ingrained by my experience with those counties. In one of my books I write about going up into the Tatra Mountains in the middle of the winter to work at a dacha set up for the judiciary by the Ministry of Justice. In fact, I stayed there during a week in the middle of a long, cold winter. On one day, during my time there, I trekked out over the snow with two members of the Ministry to a small, cobbled-together lodge hidden in a canyon, almost all of the structure covered by huge drifts. Inside, the lodge was decorated with old Slovak work implements, gypsy costumes and musical instruments. There was a huge fireplace in the middle of the single room where the food was being cooked over a roaring fire. I had one of the best meals of my life. Since I lived that experience, how could I not write about the place, and how could it not be a character in a novel?
Every location has its own ambiance. If you ignore it, or it ignores you in the writing, then the flavor of the story, as a meal you want to ingest or (metaphorically) eat, is going to be flat, without any taste or flavor or tang. The scenery and the action interact. The characters are in it, or they’re not in it. They have to react to it, and it (the location), in turn, is affected by them. If, as a writer, you want to bring the reader into the story, the place has to fill their lives as they read. Otherwise, as a writer, you miss the target.
And, yes, I pay attention to the locale I write about, not just to inform the story, but to inform me, and then the reader. So, I’m very careful about the setting.
How does Commander Jana Matinova interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Matinova?
My protagonist is a commander in the Slovak Police. She loves her country, but is not blind to its faults. She reacts to all of the nuances of the mixed cultures in Slovakia, and the surrounding area, and it affects her interaction with other police officers, victims, witnesses, sectional differences in and around the country, political events that are unique to the area, and the position she has, as both a commander of police, and as a woman. As well, Jana Matinova (the protagonist) reacts to the cultures, and the cultural differences that are the melting cultural pot that is Europe, and particularly Central and Eastern Europe. It is a geographic area that, throughout history, has been rolled over many times by one army or another: the Romans, the Huns, the Turks, the Austrians, Napoleon, the Nazis, the Russians, etc. Remember, in the immediate past, forty thousand of them died in the war of liberations against the Germans. As a result, there is a certain amount of suspicion and lack of trust by many of those who lives there, distrust, many times, of each other, and of everyone outside of their particular sub-culture. It’s a great ethos in which to place a story.
Has there been any local reaction to your works in Slovakia?
The books have not yet been translated into Slovak, so the reactions have only come from a few of my friends in Slovakia based on the English versions, and from a number of Slovaks in the US. The Slovak Counsel-General in New York loved the books, as did the other Slovaks who read them. So, when they are finally translated into Slovak, or Czech, I have high hopes. The first two books have been sold to a French publisher and to a Japanese publisher. However, that was fairly recently, and the publishers are in the process of translating them now. So, ask me this question at this time next year.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Setting a scene to play off on creates the tone, the gravitas of the novel. This brings the reader into the book. It can be a small thing, like describing the aridness and bleak quality of an office, or the heaters set up in a building’s hall to supplement the furnaces which are failing to do the job of keeping the freezing weather outside. As an example of location setting tone, here are a few paragraphs of Siren of the Waters.
“The man in white-face and an imitation Austrian army uniform circa 1800 stood on a small wooden box in the middle of the main square of Old Town Bratislava. Except for the few passer-bys, the empty space, with its drifting veils of snow picked up by the wind, looked gloomier than it generally did, even in the winter. The statue of the armed knight looming over the fountain had been taken down and stored for the winter; the fountain itself covered over to prevent ice from forming inside, expanding and splitting the stone structure.
“With the cadaver like leafless trees dotted through the square there was an air of deep melancholy which even afflicted the clown figure performing on the box. Well, clowns had never made Jana laugh. Too sad or too scary. They had made her dislike going to the circus when she was a child.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
There are a long list of writers who have influenced me, many of them not commonly considered as being in the crime field. To name a few that have used the “spirit”, first try ee cummings’s The Enormous Room. Or, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Or the island prison where Edmund Dante is held in The Count of Monte Cristo. If we’re talking just plain crime novelists (really espionage with this first one, but what the hell) try any of Alan Furst’s novels. Or try the early Berlin/ Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr. Or Caleb Carr in The Alienist. How about anything by James Lee Burke. All of them are favorites because, for one thing, they all know how to generate and use the “place” so it supports the story they’re creating.
What’s next for your protagonist?
The next novel is coming out in July. It’s called The Magician’s Accomplice. It begins and ends in Bratislava, but also takes Jana Matinova to Austria, Ukraine, Holland and the Czech Republic. It begins with a college student eating a quiet hotel breakfast. Without warning, he is assassinated. A short time later, the man Matinova is having an affair with is killed by a telephone bomb. To get a grieving Matinova out of Slovakia her boss sends her to The Hague in Holland to work at Europol. While flying there she meets an old stage magician and, incongruously, the two of them unite to uncover the killers. They begin to unearth a murderous conspiracy…only to find themselves now being the hunted.
Thanks, Michael for an insightful and lively discussion.
Visit Michael’s homepage for more information.