THE WIDOW KILLER by Pavel Kohout


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A powerful sense of the ambiguities of political and moral allegiance distinguishes this fascinating melodrama, translated into English for the first time, by the celebrated Czech playwright and novelist (I Am Snowing, 1994, etc.). Kohout’s increasingly suspenseful and gripping story is set in Prague under German occupation. The year is 1945, and the Nazi high command is beginning to orchestrate a mass “retreat” designed to “trap” pursuing Allied forces. Simultaneously, a hunt is underway for the savage “widow killer” whose victims are left grotesquely mutilated. In beautifully handled parallel scenes, Kohout explores the wounded hearts and minds of his major characters: young Czech homicide detective Jan Morava, whose newfound romantic happiness will be crucially tested by the horrors of the case he’s assigned; the Gestapo’s —liaison officer” with the Czech authorities, the widower Erwin Buback—a conscience-ridden German struggling to elude complicity with his fatherland’s crimes; and the eponymous murderer, a righteous psychotic whose motivations are unfortunately presented in delirious reveries that are both redundant and derivative (Kohout betrays considerable indebtedness to Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs). Still, the steps leading to the murders, and those depicting investigative procedures involving Czech and German authorities, are riveting; the characterizations (especially that of the idealistic, sadly disillusioned Morava) are distinctive and incisive; and Kohout raises his tale to an impressive level when the vainglorious “widow killer” resolves “I AM THE NATION . . . . the new avenger of Czech shame.” The story reaches a brilliant apex when Nazi attempts to evacuate Prague and the detectives’ pursuit of their quarry dovetail in a fiery climax. It’s arguable that Kohout spells out his message rather too explicitly (“The unknown and unpredictable widow slaughterer stripped the thin veneer of civilization from mankind and threatened to return humanity to its savage prehistory”)—but enthralled readers aren’t likely to object. A superb reimagining of modern history, skillfully transmuted into absorbing fiction.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-19363-7
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1998


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