Slow at first, Berzins’ new thriller still entertains

Ghosts & Shadows

Uldis Lapins, the seemingly shifty pastor of the Latvian church in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, may be trying to bilk the members of his congregation out of their life savings. But then, halfway through Ilze Berzins’ latest thriller, Ghosts & Shadows, he is reported to have died, apparently a victim of his peanut allergy.

The novel is one of Berzins’ better efforts. Rich characters combine with an eventually captivating plot for a story that should be of interest to anyone looking for a Latvian krimiķis in the English language. However, readers familiar with Berzins’ earlier stories will find that Ghosts & Shadows owes some of its success to the characters and efforts at plot development in those works.

It is courageous of Berzins to tackle this story, set as it is in Ottawa’s Latvian community. Writing about the place you know best, and for Berzins that is Ottawa, can lead to compelling prose, but also can raise the hackles of the locals. No doubt some readers will try to draw parallels with people they might know in real life.

Ghosts & Shadows, released in November, is the seventh mystery novel and the eighth book overall by Berzins. A second-generation Latvian-Canadian, Berzins also is an artist.

Berzins takes a long time to build up the drama in Ghosts & Shadows, a characteristic of her previous novel, Kolka (2004). It takes 47 pages—seven admittedly short chapters—for Berzins just to paint her protagonist.

Ghosts & Shadows is told from the first-person viewpoint of Anastasia Karsubova, Stasia or Stacy for short, the daughter of a Russian father and a Latvian mother. She’s a 40-something loner who hangs out with Ottawa’s older Latvian generation. Her one-time lover, a Latvian-American journalist named Andris Ripa, supposedly was killed years ago while covering a story in Rīga. Her dog, Bear the Rottweiler, has gone missing. Geez, this almost makes Stasia sound like the subject of a bad Latvian country song.

But there is more to Stasia than that. Like in Kolka, Berzins delves into the psyche of her protagonist. Stasia floats in and out of the past, fantasizing about returning to the Rīga she remembers from her time there from 1994-1998 (at this point readers familiar with Berzins’ work may be tempted to pull out their copy of her autobiographical Happy Girl): “When I was there ten years ago, Riga was a brawling bully of a town, an endless unstoppable crime spree, a chaotic feast of cheap booze, fattening food and eye-popping urban decay. I loved every moment of it. But now I hear all that’s gone and I wonder if I’d ever want to go back.”

However, Stasia may remind some of Birdie Finch, the protagonist in Kolka. Like Stasia, Birdie lived alone in Ottawa. Like Stasia, Birdie’s closest relationship was with a person much older than she. Like Stasia, Birdie spent a lot of time caught up in memories and dreams, although Birdie’s were darker than those of Stasia’s.

Also figuring strongly in Ghosts & Shadows is Alex Stromanis, who is tormented in his old age by memories of the night the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise ship, was torpedoed in January 1945 by a Soviet submarine. He lost his wife and baby. The ship, extremely overloaded with refugees fleeing the advancing Soviet forces, had sailed from Gdynia, a port near Gdansk, Poland. Estimates of the number of dead range from 7,000 to more than 9,000 men, women and children, making it—as several sources note—the worst maritime disaster on record.

In a suitcase in his home, Stromanis keeps a satchel he rescued from that horrific night. In the satchel are thousands of Imperial Russian gold coins.

And then there’s Tamara Nemerova, a voluptuous Russian from Rīga who has come to Ottawa ostensibly to lure local Latvians to spend their money on a tour of the homeland. She knows Stasia from when she lived in Latvia, and before Stasia knows it, Tamara has managed to move into the spare room in her house.

A variety of other characters populate the novel, many of whom are carefully colored by Berzins. The reader might be frustrated that it takes so long for something to happen, but the last 100 of the 244-page Ghosts & Shadows have plenty of twists to make up for the slow start. The result is an entertaining tale of corruption and swindle set in Canada and Latvia.

More information about Berzins and her books is available from her Web site,


Ghosts & Shadows

Ilze Berzins

Ottawa:  Albert Street Press,  2005

ISBN 0-9686502-7-9

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

12 thoughts on “Slow at first, Berzins’ new thriller still entertains

  1. I think the book stands quite well on its own and do not agree that it owes its success to previous books characters and efforts at plot development. What is meant by Stacy being like a subject of a bad Latvian Country Song? Sounds like an underhanded side-swipe with no relevance. If people in Ottawa are upset or have their hackles up; is it because there is some truth in the story? If there is truth then it may be time they all went to the sauna “velu izdziht!”

  2. I just read Berzins’ fascinating crime story “Ghosts and Shadows” and I can agree to much of what Andris Straumanis describes in his review of the book. But I would like to add that the so called build up of characters in the beginning of the book is part of the fun of reading it. Berzins makes a very good and entertaining description of characters, especially latvians in Canada. Further, the plot became so exciting after the build up that I could not put down the book. For a foreigner living in Latvia it is good get an insight into these Latvian communities abroad.

    Jacob Lalander, living and working in Riga for 138 months

  3. According to Straumanis, “Writing about the place you know best, and for Berzins that is Ottawa, can lead to compelling prose”. In this case, the setting has been somewhat unfortunate, as the author evidently has no knowledge about the local community, who justifiably may feel targetted. Thus, intentionally or not, she has placed her book into limbo as far as the locals are concerned: neither documentary, nor pure fantasy.

    For those who are not familiar, Ottawa is a very small community, which cannot provide the anonymity that the author is obviously aspiring to get for the backdrop of her book. I agree that the book should stand well on its own, so it does not gain from being shackled down by connections to a clearly identifiable community or persons.

    Best enjoyed by readers who have absolutely no familiarity with the Ottawa Latvian community.

  4. Having no memory of my homeland, Riga, Latvia, I found the story itself fascinating. The characters are absolutely delightful. We can laugh with, and at them – and feel their agonies.

    The book skillfully combines a modern murder mystery with historical facts and scenes. There are enough surprising twists and turns in the story to keep you turning pages quickly.

    The author has made Stasia into a very believable, unpretentious person and, as the story developes, we meet more and more characters who seem to be bigger than life and so, entertain us.

    It was with regret that I reached the end of the book, because now all these most interesting characters were left behind; but then, I can still conjure them up in my memory and smile.

    Ellen Maybee

  5. I think the Latvian Community will have matured when they can read a lively and humerous fictional account and not get bent out of shape. The characters as depicted by Ms. Berzins are alive and believable whether in a Latvian Community in Ottawa, Boston, St. Petersburg, Portland, Chicago or elsewhere in North America. The backdrop of the novel could have been expat Norwegians in Minnesota or Swedes in Maine! (They had their own non-fictional problem when somebody put arsenic in the Sunday after-church coffee about a year and a half ago!)

  6. No, I’m not! Well, I had to go to my local Grenbank Shopping Centre to post this since it is my computer which is banned. BAD COMPUTER!
    What I want to say to Mikelis, in particular, is that I have deep roots in this Latvian community here in Ottawa. Mosts of these folk are latter day refugees from Montreal where I grew up. How can Mikelis, being from Australia, possibly know of my connections, my childhood crushes, disputes, etc… a lifetime of living has gone into GHOSTS AND SHADOWS. And yet here I am, paying for computer time since my own computer has been banned. Silly really. Us artistes know how to surmount obstacles.

  7. Great review of this latest book in The Ottawa Citizen! I also thought it was a good read, her best up to now. The characters are more likeable and humanly rounded and the overall story more heartwarming. More punch and crispness with every book: congratulations! LB

  8. Here is another book by Ilze Berzins that I will add to my collection. No shortage of descriptive words. It’s a thriller that built up and got you involved with the characters. I couldn’t put it down until that satisfying last page. Keep those thrillers coming! Irinka

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