In Dan Fesperman's highly praised Lie in the Dark ("A quite astonishing first novel"--Ian Rankin), we met Vlado Petric, a homicide detective in Sarajevo, a war-torn place where life itself had little worth.
Now, five years later, Petric has escaped to join his wife and daughter in Berlin, and is scratching out a meager but stable existence at a construction site. So when he's recruited by Calvin Pine--an enigmatic American investigator for the war crimes tribunal at The Hague--to join a search mission back in the ruins of his homeland, he finds it hard to resist. They're seeking a general responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, but Petric is also being offered as bait to lure another suspect whose activities in World War II make the current generation of killers look like amateurs. Getting hotter on a trail that eventually leads across Europe, Petric soon finds that great political powers make unsavory alliances, and that investigating the mysteries of the past can be as dangerous as navigating the war zones of the present.
A gripping novel about legends and lies, about great deceptions and personal truths, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows is a galvanizing detective novel in a vein that brilliantly transcends the genre.
"The past isn't dead, it isn't even past," said William Faulkner about the American South. That goes double for the former Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1998, at the start of this chilling, accomplished espionage novel, the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague decides to pick up a wanted Serbian general, Andric. As a quid pro quo, the French want Pero Matek, a Croatian war criminal from WWII, lifted from Bosnia, where he has become a minor capo. Calvin Pine, from the tribunal, travels to Berlin to contact Vlado Petric, a Bosnian emigre and former Sarajevo detective. Taking leave of his wife and daughter, Vlado is debriefed at The Hague, then sent with Pine to post-conflict Sarajevo. Vlado has a secret: some acquaintances of his in Berlin had recently murdered a Serbian war criminal, Popovic, and Vlado helped them dispose of the corpse. At the tribunal, a sinister American named Harkness has been referring enigmatically to Popovic's "disappearance." In Sarajevo, Pine reveals the real reason Vlado was chosen to set up Matek-unbeknownst to Vlado, his late father was an associate of Matek's during WWII. The setup fails; Matek escapes. Following Matek to Italy, Vlado and Pine rendezvous with a former American army intelligence agent, Robert Fordham, who is edgily paranoid. Fordham claims there's a deep connection between the Croats and American intelligence. Just how deep becomes clear as the pair close in on Matek. This tight, intelligent thriller by the author of the well-received Lie in the Dark chillingly describes a world in which justice is always a negotiation between highly compromised alternatives, and history burdens every player-except for the executioners.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 13, 2004
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Excerpt from The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman
Down in the mud of central Berlin you never knew what you might find. Last week it had been an American bomb, as long and fat as a giant bratwurst. A poor fellow from Poland poked it with a shovel and the whole thing went up. Five more fatalities for the casualty lists of World War II, courtesy of a B-17 that hadn't flown for half a century.
Then there was the corpse, or the skeleton, rather, that rose from the ground on the yellow teeth of a backhoe. Probably nobody famous. Just a Russian from 1945 who never made it home, judging by the buttons, the boots, and the rusty helmet. Two efficient men in sport coats and ties hauled him away in a black plastic bag.
Barbed wire turned up, too, on this landscape of accidental archaeology, but that was of a more recent vintage, left by the East Germans in the path of their long and formidable wall. And sometimes when Vlado Petric trudged through the ooze, he pondered all the German shepherds that had patrolled this narrow strip of land, day after day, year after year. Plenty of their leftover shit mixed in the mire, he supposed, and for all those reasons he spent ten minutes at the end of each workday cleaning the waffled soles of his boots with a screwdriver, prying loose the mud. It was the richest sediment of twentieth-century misery the world had to offer, and he had no wish to track it home. He'd tramped enough to his doorstep already, nearly five years earlier, as one of the hundreds of thousands of Bosnians who'd escaped their own war for some quieter venue across Europe's sagging theme park of history.
So, when Vlado and Tomas Petrowski mounted backhoes Monday morning to dig into the muck of Potsdamer Platz, they knew there was always a chance they would unearth some history, even though they were construction workers, not archaeologists. They were the merest of drones, in fact, two among thousands on a landscape that Berlin's boosters were billing as the world's largest construction site. Not since Albert Speer unrolled his blueprints for Hitler had the city witnessed such architectural hubris, and tourists with nothing better to do could pay a few deutsche marks to climb the stairs of a red building on stilts at the heart of it all. Indoors there were photos, maps, and charts to see. But the real attraction was out in the elements atop a switchback of corrugated metal stairs. It was a high viewing platform where you could stand in the wind and rain to marvel at it all, to watch the city be transformed from the inside out, as if an alien spaceship had uprooted a massive high-rise shard of downtown Dallas, and dropped it onto the belly of old Europe.
If you stood there that Monday morning with a set of binoculars, you might have picked out Vlado and Tomas as they went to work, marching toward their backhoes, almost emulating a goose step as they picked their way through the slurping ooze, yellow hard hats bobbing. They were a few hundred yards from the green edge of the Tiergarten, Tomas a short and stubby Pole with the golden hair and beard of a Viking, Vlado of medium build and measured expression, clipped dark hair above deep-set brown eyes, a face that strived mightily to give away nothing. Each wore jeans and a flannel shirt bought from the battered metal stalls of outdoor markets on a gray Saturday morning, and each knew how lucky he was to be working for twelve D-marks an hour, with all the right papers and documents to make it legal.
Neither spoke the other's language, but both spoke enough German to grunt and nod their way through a day on the job. Their task was simple enough. Other men drove stakes and markers into the ground, then Vlado and Tomas dug trenches and holes between them, generally working straight through until lunch. At noon they carried brown bags to benches in some damp birch glade of the Tiergarten, as calm and green as an Alpine meadow, then ate their sandwiches and apples, watching rucksacked legions of young Germans glide past on bicycles.