Riga Blanca, the latest mystery by Canadian-Latvian writer and artist Ilze Berzins, reads like an automobile stuck in the snow, unable to get any traction until, vroom!, away it goes before coming to a sudden stop. Although rich in its description of Rīga and of human emotion, the book’s story line doesn’t satisfy as much as the author’s last work.
Riga Blanca is the fifth Berzins mystery and the second set in Latvia. Two years ago, in Riga Mortis, she introduced the amateur crime-fighting duo of yellow journalist Arnie Dambergs and English-language teacher Vizma Gross, two Canadian-Latvian expats living in Latvia. They return as characters in the latest novel, although Dambergs figures less than Gross.
At the beginning of Riga Blanca, the reader is introduced to Paulette Laci, or Lācis, the French Canadian wife of a Latvian-Canadian crown attorney from Ottawa, Andrejs Lācis. She has become convinced that her husband has been unfaithful with a Russian woman from Latvia. Now she is plotting her revenge.
Soon afterward, the reader also is introduced to the Russian woman, Valeria Atnikova, a prosecutor from Rīga who had visited Ottawa, Canada, to attend a conference. There she had met attorney Lācis and had lured him into a hot tub. Now she’s pregnant, carrying the crown attorney’s child.
And so it goes, chapter after chapter: Paulette and Valeria, Valeria and Paulette. Berzins tries to create a tension between the two characters while also building the plot, but a third of the way into the book I was starting to wonder when something was going to happen. This is, after all, supposed to be a mystery.
Finally, on page 141, Andy Lāci is found dead in Atnikova’s Rīga apartment. Or maybe he isn’t. It is an interesting twist that Berzins introduces here, but it comes fairly late in the story.
Vizma Gross is the common bond between the two women and, when Paulette shows up in Rīga on a quest for the truth of her husband’s secret life, finds herself caught in the middle between her two friends.
As in the author’s previous novels, the female characters are rendered richer than the men. The wheels-are-turning look into the heads of Paulette and Valeria, in fact, is where Berzins appears to have invested much of her energy in writing this novel, particularly in the first third of the book.
Through her main characters, Berzins also provides a rounded view of life in Latvia. Valeria could have been rendered as a stereotype of an opportunistic Russian woman, but she also manages to come across as a sympathetic character. Paulette, who early on is hell-bent on tracking down her philandering husband, is taken by the beauty of the Latvia’s capital city while becoming acclimated to its vagaries. And Vizma is a pleasant expat, one who appears to have generally found success and happiness in the land of her ancestors.
Touching on such aspects as Rīga’s underworld, on the social network of North American expats and on the struggles faced by those who want to reform Latvia’s judicial system, Berzins brings to Riga Blanca more than enough detail to make for a credible backdrop.
However, good characters are just part of creating an engaging mystery.
Typographical errors have been troublesome in previous books by Berzins, but the problem seems to have increased with this title. It may seem trivial to mention the typos, but the errors aren’t a good advertisement for the author or the publisher.
And the climax and denouement in the plot line left me unsatisfied. They seem to come quickly—too quickly given the earlier pace of the book—while leaving one to wonder why some things have happened.
I won’t give away the ending, but the novel leaves the reader with too many unanswered questions. Perhaps that’s the intent: not all mysteries are meant to be unveiled. Still, after the build-up, it would be good to not leave the reader dangling.
Ottawa: Albert Street Press, 2003
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