Dan Fesperman

"The Small Boat of Great Sorrows"

(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte NOV 14, 2003)

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows

Dan Fesperman's award-winning first novel Lie in the Dark left his protagonist, detective Vlado Petric, in Sarajevo. His latest book takes up the detective's life as a refugee in Berlin in 1998, and continues with a new adventure.

Read excerptThe name of the book is a phrase in a verse from an old Serbian poem about the chronic, tragic inter-communal hatreds in the Balkans. The fictitious Vlado Petric in the novel was born and brought up in a small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the first few pages, we find Vlado a refugee in Germany with his wife and little daughter, working at a construction site in Berlin to make ends meet. Vlado gets a chance to return to Bosnia when an American investigator from the war crimes tribunal in The Hague suddenly drops in and offers Vlado a temporary job at the tribunal. Vlado's new mission, if he accepts it, is to find an old war criminal from World War II and help bring him to justice.

Fesperman used to work as a newspaperman in Europe, and in the beginning of the novel he uses his knowledge of Germany and the Balkans to good effect. Vlado's life in Berlin as a refugee eking out an existence by working on a construction site, his wife and daughter holed up in a small apartment outside the city, and his surprise at his nine-year-old daughter growing up to be "a little German," are all realistically depicted.

We follow Vlado on the train to The Hague, to meet his new employers. The war crimes court appears as a polyglot hodge-podge of policemen, political diplomats, and spooks from many nationalities.

The French government is willing to arrest a prominent Serb general for recent atrocities committed in Srebrenica, but only if an old World War II era Bosnian war criminal is also simultaneously brought to book in return. Vlado's mission is the joint brainchild of two rival intelligence operatives from France and the United States. The high-level intrigue is new to Vlado, but he likes the hardboiled cops he will be working with. Policemen are the same everywhere. The old detective in his blood is racing again.

While Vlado has his little secret back in Berlin, his superiors have their own clandestine reasons for having selected him. The dossiers on the old war criminal, a junior army officer named Matek, take Vlado far into the past to wartime Croatia's right-wing Nazi puppet regime, from where we follow Matek's footprints until they are lost in a haze of conflicting reports. Like many soldiers, Matek made it out of the country riding a stream of refugees. Many years later, Matek reappears in today's post-conflict Bosnia, as a rich contractor making money out of aid relief organizations. As the story progresses, we see Vlado getting deeper into the case and, unexpectedly, into the history of his own childhood and of his parents. The trail of Matek's activities abroad leads finally to Italy, where at last many revelations are made.

As the plot picks up, the novel loses its distinctive sense of place and time. The latter two-thirds of the book reads like a fairly conventional crime novel, despite the setting and the occasional foray into memories of long-ago atrocities.

As a mystery thriller, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows doesn't stray far from its basic genre. The two deviations are Vlado's two face-to-face encounters with fragments of his father's past, the first one in the person of Matek, and the second toward the end of the novel, in the person of a new-found relative in Italy.

Still, in sum, the mystery is enhanced by the depth of the historical forces in former Yugoslavia that form the backdrop of the story. The hero Vlado Petric makes his own, personal voyage "down the bloody river," as the old poem goes, "sailing in the small boat of great sorrows," and Dan Fesperman takes us along for the ride.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Small Boat of Great Sorrows

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About the Author:

Dan Fesperman is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and served in its Berlin bureau during the years of civil war in former Yugoslavia, as well as in Afghanistan during the recent conflict. His first novel, Lie in the Dark, won the CWA John Creasey Award for best first crime novel in 1998.

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