Book Review: Innocence; Or, Murder On Steep Street by Heda Margolius Kovaly & Alex Zucker

Heda Margolius Kovaly ( 15 September 1919 – 5 December 2010) is a  Czech writer best-known for her memoir, Under a Cruel Star, about her ordeal in Nazi concentration camps and living under communist rule in Czechoslovakia. After her first husband, a government official, was executed in a show trial in 1952, Kovaly became a pariah, barely supporting herself and her small son by working as a translator.

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Of all the writers whose work she translated before her death in 2010 — including Heinrich Boll, Arthur Miller and Philip Roth — Kovaly most revered the work of Raymond Chandler. In 1985, Kovaly wrote a suspense novel of her own called Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. Soho Press has just brought out an English edition of the novel, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker. It’s set in the Prague of the 1950s, a time when the city was the living embodiment of a “paranoid landscape.”

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The center of the intrigue in this tale filled with spies, informers, murderers, snitches and victims is the Horizon Cinema, a movie theater where people go for escape. Kovaly describes how the moviegoers always left the theater at night silently, because they were “just focused on not getting bruised during the steep descent back into reality.” Our heroine is a young usher named Helena — modeled partly on Kovaly herself — who is desperate to rescue her husband, who has been thrown into prison for espionage. Everyone else from the concession stand operator to the cleaning lady has some scam going on.

The great draw of Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street is the menacing view it gives us of communist Prague. Helena, for instance, describes being hustled into a small interrogation room and having “pairs [of men’s eyes] stick to [her] face like frog’s legs.” Kovaly channels Chandler but takes him into a landscape far, far away from wide-open LA.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN

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