"The Widow Killer," by Pavel Kohout. New York: St. Martin's Press. 400 pages. $24.95. Every publisher claims that the serial-killer thriller they're about to release will detonate in the reader's mind the way Thomas Harris' "Silence of the Lambs" did, but there is no living writer who can duplicate the elegant, single-minded psychological surgery that Harris inflicts on his audience.
And every publisher tries to pass off the latest hybrid of serial-killer and historical novel as a commercial juggernaut like Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" - not too scary, not too James Michener.
But I don't know if I will ever again be lucky enough to read a book like the Czech novelist Pavel Kohout's "The Widow Killer," which is not only a totally thrilling and propulsive marriage of the two genres, but is, just as much, a novel about romantic love that is so passionate and generous about the subject that from time to time I had to drop the book onto the table beside me and ask myself why I was sitting here alone, reading.
"The Widow Killer" is set near the end of World War II in the German-occupied city of Prague, and Kohout evokes the air-raid sirens, the smoky streets, with a realism that is smudged and hyper-clear at the same time - grittily convincing. Assistant Detective Jan Morava, of the Czech police, must work with one of the occupying Germans, Chief Inspector Buback, to find a serial murderer who preys on widows.
The parts of the novel narrated from the killer's point of view reveal the killer's lack of charisma; he is not this Hannibal Lecter type, insidiously witty and coyly flattering. I've decided that's a good thing, dramatically, because aren't we tired of rooting for glamorous killers?
Instead, our sympathies lie with the Czechs, Morava and girlfriend Jitka; and even, weirdly, with the tortured Gestapo Buback, who's lost his wife and child in an Allied bombing. The Nazi front is collapsing, and chaos is imminent, but the investigators keep a cold eye on the evidence, closing in on the killer, who's speeding up his pace.
Every time a widow visits the cemetery, the tension here gets just about unbearable. A bereft, silent man shows up, coatless, an odd, bulging suitcase in his hand. The widow invites him home, and he kills her. But before she dies, in a few deft urgent sentences, the author paints a succinct portrait of her life and her widowhood that makes the murder all the more heartbreaking.
For instance, we meet Marta Pavlatova, who "had been making lunch for her husband, who was on the afternoon shift at the Pragovka factory. As usual, he was hanging around the kitchen getting on her nerves, so she chased him off to the grocery store on the opposite corner for their potato rations.
"From the kitchen's second-floor window she could see him leaving the store with a full string bag, when all of a sudden a giant invisible hand picked her up and carried her across the apartment. ... When she managed to stand up and scramble back into the kitchen, the view from the dusty window opened onto a completely unfamiliar street. The grocery store building was split in two; its left half had collapsed into the small square. Only afterward did she notice that the rag doll lying in the center of it was wearing her husband's pants and sweater."
Just a page later, the man from the cemetery is at her door, suitcase in hand. It's wartime. There are too many widows. Kohout makes us wince at the terrible irony.
Ben Neihart is the author of the novel "Hey, Joe." His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker. "Burning Girl," his new novel, will be published in April 1999.
Pub Date: 11/29/98