Ilze Berzins

Take a walk on the dark side

Ottawa Citizen:
December 18, 2005
By Mike Gillespie

Just when you think life can’t get much worse for a fortysomething struggling through a miserable Ottawa winter — and at Christmas-time, no less — another wheel falls off Stacy Karsubova’s bus.
Grim just got a whole lot grimmer.

But then, Ilze Berzins’ “Riga” series has that signature about it — brooding, bleak, dark, but, thankfully, ultimately satisfying.

Ghosts & Shadows is the Ottawa author’s latest Latvian mystery and one that returns her cast of Eastern European characters to the capital.

As the title suggests, it’s an oddball crew with its share of ghouls from the past — more ghosts, some would say, than a Dickens Christmas Carol.

Stacy (Anastasia, or Stasia) narrates this story of a crooked Latvian pastor who is milking naive elderly parishioners of their life savings.

Life is tough for Stacy, working part-time as a school teacher, hoping ultimately to upgrade her skills, and living day-to-day in a less-than-grand apartment in mid-town Ottawa. Even her dog abandons her.
Berzins populates her story convincingly, particularly in the case of Stacy who has suffered through one brief marriage to a Quebec entertainer and then loved and lost a partner in Riga, the Latvian capital she left in a hurry after his murder.

There’s also an elderly Latvian Stacy has befriended, a man haunted by the loss of his wife and infant son while fleeing the Bolshevik invasion in 1945. Their ship was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea.

Also along for the ride is Stacy’s flirty Latvian friend, Tamara, who arrives in Ottawa, illegally, to try to sell unconventional tours of Riga, the new European fleshpot. Her mission is to snag Latvian churchgoers, but it’s this would-be tour organizer who helps snap Stacy from her self-imposed torpor.
Berzins takes her time developing her characters, slowly, artfully exposing their foibles and insecurities, whether it’s Stacy’s pocket comforter for the streets of Riga (a can of Mace), the benevolent smile that hides the twisted malevolence of the sleazy pastor, or Stacy’s old friend’s confessions about holding onto a sackful of gold coins while letting go of his wife and son in the icy Baltic Sea.
Ghosts & Shadows, like Berzins’ other novels — Riga Mortis, Riga Blanca and Revenge on the Rideau, for example — is filled with twists and comic, caustic asides and built to keep readers on board for the duration of the ride. The denouement is well worth the price of admission.
If you’ve followed the Riga series, don’t miss this one.

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