A hundred pages into Ilze Berzins’ latest mystery novel, Riga Mortis, the plot not only thickens, but takes us a layer further down into a post-Soviet Latvia that we don’t really want to know about. Government corruption, a pedophilia scandal and the trade in sex slaves—all issues still with us—frame the story that unfolds for the book’s protagonists.
Even though an unidentified body shows up in Chapter 2, don’t expect Riga Mortis to be a traditional whodunit. This is more a sociopolitical thriller than a murder mystery.
At this point, Berzins probably has entered that category of writer known as “prolific.” This is her fourth book in as many years, all of them mysteries. But she first became known to Latvian readers with Happy Girl, the 1997 autobiographical tale of her attempted “return” to her ancestral homeland. Berzins clearly draws on that experience for much of the rich detail in Riga Mortis.
To read Riga Mortis is to enter a time warp. The story takes place about 1996. Anyone who lived in or visited Latvia—or even kept up on current events—during this time should recognize some of the social problems and settings described by Berzins. (The novel is a bit anachronistic. The real pedophile scandal that rattled the government and the elite class of Rīga began in late 1999, not in the mid-1990s.)
The main characters in the story are two Latvian expatriates—“expats”—from Ottawa, Canada. Arnie Dambergs, a former copy editor for a Canadian daily newspaper, has returned to his parents’ homeland to start a new career as the editor and publisher of a scandal sheet covering the expat community. Vizma Gross, a divorcee and former legal secretary, has come back to start anew and now teaches English at the Art Academy.
The story begins as Arnie is putting the finishing touches on the latest issue of his scandal sheet, only to have the electricity go out in his apartment. In the garage of his apartment building, he finds that the breaker switch to his flat has been thrown. Resetting it, he discovers a bloody body next to an orange Lada (a popular car model during and immediately after the Soviet occupation).
Soon enough, the cast of characters—which, oddly enough, includes the orange Lada—grows. Among them are Don Fischer, the commercial attache to the American embassy who is trying to put behind him the suspicious death of his first wife back in Chicago; Maija Fischer, a Latvian expat from Milwaukee who has become the diplomat’s second wife; Mike, a photographer and petty thief who works for Arnie; and Mike’s girlfriend, Anda, who soon finds herself embroiled in the mystery after the disappearance of her niece, Daina, and the death of her sister, Silvia. Berzins adds other characters as well, so many that we almost need a guidebook to keep them straight. But that does make Riga Mortis a fun book—although I hesitate to use “fun” to describe the story, given its dark undertones.
Distrust of the police is a key element in the unfolding of Riga Mortis. Arnie is advised against going to the police to tell what he saw in the garage, and when he does encounters a Russian-speaking cop who dismisses him. Vizma thinks about going to the cops to save her from the “Goth” who follows her around Rīga, but then thinks better. And when Silvia’s daugher, Daina, disappears, Silvia goes to her sister for help, not the police. If the story were set in Canada, we might expect these characters to immediately turn to the cops for help, with reasonable assurance that a resolution might be reached. But then there might not be a story. Still, I kept wanting to know more about why the Latvians—expats and locals alike—would rather not deal with the police. The root of that distrust, I thought as I read, needed to be drawn out more.
Berzins uses detail well to paint the Rīga of the mid-1990s, particularly the lives of expats. The Rīga she describes is the one many of us know well: the architectural beauty and nostalgic feel of the Old City contrasted with the grayness and squalor of living conditions for many in the outlying districts.
But there are points when the detail misses and—depending on how picky the reader—can make one stop in their tracks. For example, on page 29 Berzins notes that the expats enjoy going to a certain bar and restaurant because, among other things, they can read the New York Herald Tribune. What Berzins means is the International Herald Tribune. (The IHT used to be the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, but the latter folded in 1966.)
And non-Canadians may be sent to the Internet to learn what exactly an RRSP is. It’s a registered retirement savings plan, which Arnie uses to finance his new life in Latvia.
In Riga Mortis, Berzins digs deeper not only in terms of plot, but also in developing her characters and getting into their minds. Arnie’s troubling dreams, for instance, reveal his anxieties as he struggles with doubts about his short- and long-term future.
And despite the unsavory nature of the story, Berzins continues practicing her wit in Riga Mortis, particularly when detailing how expats used to the comforts of North America encounter the nascent consumer culture of Latvia. “She was having another of her bad expat moments,” Berzins writes of Vizma in an early chapter. “Her mascara stick would soon dry out and God knows where she’d be able to replace it.”
Riga Mortis is a bit of a slow starter. I’ll confess to being a tad distracted through the first third, but as the plot developed so did my interest. By the time the story reached its resolution, I was satisfied that Berzins has managed to craft a believable Latvian thriller.
Ottawa: Albert Street Press, 2002
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