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Lie in the Dark
Dan Fesperman

Lie in the Dark
Dan Fesperman
Soho Press Inc
NY 1999

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The investigations that propel the best detective novels, from Crime and Punishment to Smilla’s Sense of Snow, begin with the fates of individual bodies but end with dissections of the entire body politic. While Dan Fesperman’s debut novel Lie in the Dark doesn’t match the scope of these precursors, it shares their ambition and their pedigree. Fesperman, who covered the Bosnian conflict for the Baltimore Sun, evokes a time, place and people, the civil war in Yugoslavia and the shell-shocked residents of Sarajevo, with haunting verisimilitude. He combines a reporter’s eye and ear for the telling detail with a fiction writer’s love of the human drama and the human dilemma. The result is a novel that will take readers from the headlines into the heart of an appalling war, and its appalling human toll.

Fesperman has created the ideal protagonist for his ambitious act of social investigation. Vlado Petric is a homicide investigator in Sarajevo, a Kafkaesque vocation in a city where death by shelling and sniper fire has become the norm. His own background and allegiances, his father was a Muslim, his mother Catholic, his wife the Muslim daughter of a Serb mother, simultaneously registers the absurdity of the ethnic divisions that fuel the region’s ongoing conflicts and render him a canny, complex narrator.

Petric begins his days by counting the gravediggers outside his window, and ends them by dodging snipers on his way back to his crumbling apartment. His wife and daughter have found refuge in Germany (a good thing, since a majority of the some 400,000 dead or wounded during the three-year war were Muslims), and his office has been consigned to investigating the most squalid and hopeless of cases, domestic violence born of madness, stress, or alcohol. But when the chief of the Bosnian Interior Ministry’s special police force is killed, and suspected of black market dealings, Vlado is assigned to the case so the government can convince the UN that it is above reproach. His investigation reveals a complicated scheme to strip Bosnia of its cultural treasures that reaches all the way to the government’s Interior Ministers.

Although Petric’s increasingly dangerous quest for the truth propels the plot of Lie in the Dark, it is finally far less interesting than Fesperman’s determination to render the circumstantial density of life as lived in the midst of civil war. This description of the patchwork phone system in the Jewish Community Center, where Petric attempts to call his exiled family, reveals the way Fesperman uses the quotidian to register the cataclysmic:

“The center’s long-distance telephone service was a work of ingenuity. All lines leading out of the city had long since been cut, so a ham radio operator made the connection to the phone network in Zagreb, the capital city of neighboring Croatia, which then patched through calls to anywhere except Serbia or other parts of Bosnia. Serbia was taboo because it was still Croatia’s enemy. Bosnia was off limits simply because too many phone lines had been cut. You could call clear around the globe, but you couldn’t phone a few miles up the road to a town like Kiseljak or Pale.” (81)

The four-year civil war that is Fesperman’s larger subject in Lie in the Dark ostensibly ended with the signing of the Dayton peace accord in November, 1995. But the one of the negotiators of this treaty was Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the major architect of the war in Bosnia as well as the earlier conflict in Croatia. His increasingly brutal campaign against the majority Albanian population of Kosovo, which began less than three years after the end of fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed the pattern of these earlier wars. This time, however, the spotlight of international media attention recorded the grim toll of Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign, and public revulsion lent support to NATO’s historic 78-day NATO bombing campaign against his military forces. Milosevic has been indicted as a war criminal, and the extent of his crimes is still being measured in mass graves as I write this review.

Rather than dating Lie in the Dark, subsequent developments have made the novel seem prescient. In hindsight, Petric’s final view of Sarajevo as he escapes its chaos has a wider relevance than even Fesperman could have imagined at the time:

“His last view of the city was out over the burned highrises to the east and beyond, off toward his own apartment, though his line of sight was blocked by a hill. He could, however, just see the edge of the snowy fields where, judging by the time of day, the gravediggers would soon be bending to their shovels.”

Reviewed by James Diedrick

James Diedrick is Howard L. McGregor Professor of the Humanities at Albion College and author of Understanding Martin Amis (1995). He maintains the Martin Amis Web


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