In latest work, Berzins crafts a better thriller


Unlike in her previous mystery novels, the protagonist in Ilze Berzins’ latest book, Kolka, is not even a wannabe crime-solver. Instead, Birdie Finch is a woman tormented by dark dreams who finds herself dragged into an equally dark reality. And, it turns out, she is at the center of a very competent psychological thriller.

Finch is taking time off from her job at Canada Post to take care of her late mother’s house in the Bank Street district of Ottawa, Canada. The reader gets the impression that she spends her days swinging between brightness and melancholy, tending to her garden, dabbling in recreating the work of great artists, and looking forward to the regular visits from her friend, Alma Kemp.

The mystery begins in earnest in Chapter 4 when Kemp, a bubbly woman in her 70s, disappears. Only a few pages later, the disappearance turns sinister when Birdie, working in her garden, uncovers a plastic bag containing the fingers of Alma’s hand.

Kolka, released in November, is the sixth mystery novel and the seventh book overall by Berzins, a Latvian-Canadian artist and author. Her autobiographical Happy Girl (1997) was followed by a series of mysteries that have taken the reader from Ottawa to Rīga and back.

Unlike her previous two novels, Riga Mortis (2002) and Riga Blanca (2004), the Latvian connection in Kolka is more mythical than real. Most of the story physically takes place in a small corner of Ottawa. Finch has never visited Latvia, but knows of the northwestern Horn of Kolka (Kolkas rags) from the descriptions provided by a Swede named Jacob Carlsson. Birdie and Jacob had connected on some level, we learn in the course of the story, and now Birdie dreams of Kolka, a place that symbolizes both life and death, “this place without beginning or without end,” as Berzins writes on the final page.

Kolka is a technically better-produced book. Compared to Berzins’ earlier works, which at times seem to have been rushed into print, Kolka is logically tighter and crafted more thoughtfully. Berzins does a nice job of closing circles: “Fingers in the freezer” is the ditty Birdie hears in her mind as she comes awake at the start of Chapter 7, “Fingers in the freezer” is the psychological barrier to going to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee at the close of Chapter 8. And the typographical errors that have dogged those earlier works are all but gone.

But something is missing. Kolka lacks a certain spunk of those earlier stories such as Death in the Glebe. However, that’s not a criticism. If I had not read her earlier work, I would still consider Kolka a good effort. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve come to expect a certain hurriedness to Berzins’ books. Kolka is a refreshingly measured story—and that’s ultimately better for it. The conclusion particularly seems to fit, rather than being an appendage.

Readers who have never read any of Berzins’ novels might do well to start with Kolka rather than her earlier work. For those who have been disappointed by some of that earlier work, a visit to Kolka will be refreshing.



Ilze Berzins

Ottawa:  Albert Street Press,  2004

ISBN 0-968650-26-0

On the Web

Ilze Berzins

The author’s home page includes information on how to order Kolka and her other books. EN

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

One thought on “In latest work, Berzins crafts a better thriller

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *