Georgia on my mind

Crime Corner: Norwegian Noir with Jerry Holt

For me, the best way to get to know a country has always been through reading its literature, seeing its films, and absorbing its music. Thus, when I learned that this issue of The Norwegian American would be centering on Georgia, I sprang first to Wikipedia and then to Google, where I hoped to turn up some Georgian crime fiction. With the encouragement of our resourceful leader Lori Ann Reinhall, I did just that. My resulting reading was a mixed bag—but quite a memorable one!

In many ways, Georgia’s central city, Tbilisi, has been and may still be the closest thing to the Casablanca that Warner Brothers invented for us back during World War II—a multicultural melting pot of intrigue and international deal-making, where the most interesting characters are bound to turn up.

The fact that Georgia claims Joseph Stalin as a native son has created quandary enough throughout the years of Stalinization and de-Stalinization during the 20th century, and for many even now, these contradictions are at the heart of the country’s daily story.

It’s certainly a blood-soaked history, one that recorded a violent coup as recently as 1991, when the first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was deposed. We are also looking at a history of corruption and organized crime that rivals Chicago in 1920s. Eliot Ness should have dropped in. He would have loved it.

Georgia’s most famous actual murder involves the celebrity gadabout Norwegian Dagny Juel (1867-1901) known and followed during her time the way that the Kardashians are followed here today. Juel, as it turns out, was the model for Edvard Munch’s “Madonna” painting.

Native Georgian Zurab Karumidze, a novelist and short-story writer, has turned the case into a kind of “true crime” story, in his novel Dagny, or a Love Feast, and he has been duly rewarded with international recognition—including a shortlist for the Dublin Literary Prize. He considers himself a postmodernist, not a term that usually sends readers running to the bookstores—and the truth is that it is a rough read.

And I’m no novice here. I tackled James Joyce’ s Ulysses in my 20s and stayed the course; I’m a combat literary veteran of One Hundred Years of Solitude and (groan) Blood Meridian. I eat Bob Dylan’s most obscure lyrics for breakfast and once sat through Last Year at Marienbad twice, only to learn that it made even less sense the second time around. But I’m telling you, folks—wear your battle armor for this one.

Our narrator and guide of sorts is a nameless drunkard who seems incapable of writing a sentence without turning it into a full blown alcoholic tirade. This man is obsessed with Dagny—just as everyone who gets within a smallholding of her seems to be. And yet the more he rhapsodizes about her—the further away we as readers seem to get. She was an artist, a musician, a sometime mother—and she knew lots of famous people, a good portion of whom proceed to make cameo appearances and make mostly incomprehensible pronouncements.

Here is the artist Munch on Dagny: “You had to experience her to be able to describe her.”

OK, but don’t count on experiencing her in the pages of this book. Instead we get encounters with August Strindberg, the Georgian poet Vazha-Pshavela, and—of course—Joseph Stalin.

And, yes, there are nonhuman commentators as well: whirling dervishes, a few cats, and, memorably, a raven from the planet Saturn who answers, when he is in the mood, to the exotic name Gornahor.

But, alas, Dagny’s days—in this novel as in life—are numbered. She will be murdered in a hotel room in Tbilisi, where she wound up with one of her children, her sometime husband Stanislaw Przybyszewski—and a deliriously smitten young man named Wladyslaw Emeryk.

It is Emeryk who would shoot her that night. She was a few days short of her 34th birthday. The next day Emeryk would shoot himself. Dagny’s young son, as it turned out, witnessed her murder.

I do not mean to be unkind to Karumidze: clearly he, too, was obsessed with his subject matter. But if we are looking for a fuller understanding of this woman, who meant so much to so many, it would be best to just read a straight biography, of which there are a number. There is even a film.

But if you think you would prefer a more “phantasmagorical,” as one reviewer put it, treatment of this true event, this novel might just be for you. Was I caught up in it? Occasionally. Did I sometimes fight sleep? Yup.

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We are on more familiar ground with Christopher Morgan Jones, who has a small franchise building in his series of novels about Isaac “Ike” Hammer (sigh­), a sort of private investigator and a sort of spy whose latest adventure takes him to—where else?—Georgia, and specifically Tbilisi.  Hammer’s partner Ben Webster has gone either MIA or rogue, and Hammer is in town to find him.

Jones is quite a good stylist, and his diamond-hard description of Hammer’s surroundings came as a tonic after spending so much time with Dagny.

Here is Ike’s first look at Tbilisi: “….he left his room and wandered without purpose into this strange, raging, enchanted place that didn’t seem to want him. He wouldn’t blame it for the rejection; it was a wonder it allowed strangers at all. In the scant 10 pages of history he had read on the plane, there had appeared so many invasions, sacking, and razing that even he, a student of conflict, began first to marvel and then simply to lose count. For hundreds of years the Persians and the Turks and the Mongols and the Armenians had taken turns to savage Georgia, drawn by its fertility and its place at the heart of the world, forcing its people to retreat into the mountains in the north and leaving its history an endless seesawing of raid and counterraid. Being destroyed and rebuilt had become the pattern of Tbilisi’s existence. And then, only two centuries ago, the Russians had arrived, finally crossing the Caucasus range, to offer protections and deliver the rawest betrayal.”

Sounds not unlike what Ukrainians are going through right now! And what a setting for double deeds, outright lies, and treachery. Down these mean streets a man must go, right? Or a woman: Jones paces them out, but there are enough femme fatales in The Searcher to keep Hammer’s libido throbbing.

There is a little of every paperback spy who haunted the ’60s in this book: Chester Drum and Matt Helm and Paul Drake surfaced on my nostalgia radar. But there are traces of more current protagonists like Jack Reacher in here as well.

In other words, Ike Hammer needs no introduction. He is the cold-hearted operative with just enough conscience to let us warily bond with him. And, happily, he is not the Superman that Jack Reacher is always a pistol whip or two from becoming: “Hammer felt small and exposed, like a bullied child. And old. He was fit enough, and strong enough, but not against people like this. These were expert frighteners. Career men.”

And best of all, Jones never fails to let the environment become a character in the story. Marlowe’s got Los Angeles forever, but Hammer has Georgia for the length of this novel. And he makes the most of his dance with death in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains.

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Are you exhausted? If you’re not, you might also try the Dan Mayland thriller named Death of a Spy. It will take you again to Tbilisi—this time for CIA derring-do. Mayland also has a cool website that allows you to download maps and other goodies that figure into the adventures of his hero, Mark Sava.

Also see: Dagny Juel, Norway’s “Madonna” in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.