Ilze Berzins

Review by: The Baltic Times
BOOK: Murder and muddled identity in post-Soviet Riga
By Rihards Kalnins, RIGA

Ilze Berzins’ fifth murder mystery, “Riga Mortis” (Albert Street Press, 2002), is the most recent English-language thriller to take place in Riga, and, along with William Safire’s “Sleeper Spy,” one of the only ones. But where Safire’s book lacks an intimate understanding of the city, Canadian-Latvian Berzins raises Riga to the level of a character in-and-of-itself.

Berzins’ Riga spreads out across a horizon of description, from the cheeky grins and steady flow of martinis at “expat” dinners, to the run-down two-story wooden houses of Riga’s darker corners, which house a 50-year tradition of death, alcoholism, broken dreams and crippling poverty. This vast and varied esthetic, emotional, and sociopolitical landscape spills out across the small-town-sized center of Riga.

Berzins’ protagonists, Arnie Dambergs and Vizma Gross are Canadian-born Latvians who, after lackluster careers in dead-end desk jobs, failed marriages and dashed hopes of success, have fled their fading lives in Ottawa for a chance at a better life in the city of their ancestors. But their dreams are quickly dashed as Arnie and Vizma face the harsh realities of the post-Soviet Riga of 1996.

After a year of heavy drinking and trying to get his gossip and rumor magazine, Wow!, off the ground, Arnie Dambergs begins to feel that his Riga adventure has gone stale.

His upstairs neighbor, Vizma Gross, has also begun to feel weighed down by the depression of Riga’s winter darkness, the discouragement of her ill-received attempts at teaching English at the Art Academy and her inability to find a decent hair salon.

But after Arnie stumbles across a dead body in a garage one night, he is instantly snapped out of his self-pitying and thrown into the danger and excitement of the grimy and glitzy criminal underworld of mid-90s Riga. As they get embroiled in a nightmare scenario that involves millionaires, crooked politicians, trendy restaurateurs, Russian mafiosos and sleazy American diplomats, they encounter the Riga that had escaped their shot-glass glances.

During their frantic attempt to solve a seemingly infinite crime, which takes them in and out of Riga’s trendy cafes, smoky bars, decrepit apartments, seedy motels and luxury hotels, and forces them to hide out in idyllic countryside farmhouses and quaint beach-front cottages, Arnie and Vizma meet a multitude of colorful Latvian, American and Russian characters Berzins adds depth to her thriller by including fascinating commentaries about 1996 Riga, in addition to quick history lessons about the city, thereby turning her murder mystery into a virtual tour guide to Riga for the murder mystery fan.

“Riga Mortis” is a unique novel about the realities of mid-90s Riga and the complex relationship between the many “Latvians” that make up modern Riga, in addition to simply being a first-rate murder mystery, Riga-style.

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