In the first chapter, we're treated to a better synopsis than I could cook up, so let me just borrow it. One night in the little town of Vinice, in the Czech Republic, the mayor dies during his birthday party:
Dvorska was sure that she and Ivan had been sent there for the sake of appearances, because a dead mayor was by definition high profile, and of course because no-one else wanted to touch it. She wondered why they had been called out at all, so soon. The fat feminist and the misogynist - what a team. And of course Dambo, as the senior of the two, would call the shots, so her hands would be tied. Perfect. The sudden death of a rich and powerful local figure was hardly a magnet for rising-star detectives.
Dvorska picks up a clue or two that convinces her -- and then Dambersky -- that this death was not due to natural causes. The Powers That Be don't want to hear such a thing, and rule otherwise. So this very unlikely duo has to embark on an unauthorized investigation -- not just unauthorized, but prohibited -- into the murder.
Finding the murderer of a man who died of natural causes isn't the easiest thing to accomplish, obviously -- it's hard to ask too many questions without a "Hey, he wasn't murdered, why are you asking?" coming up. So the partners have to be wily -- not just with their superior officer, but with witnesses, possible suspects, and everyone else they encounter.
The investigation takes them to various cities, a variety of social classes, and even ends up giving them a few history lessons. The mayor's home has ties to significant (at least to Vinice) historical movements, going back to World War II, the Communist takeover, and then once the Republic took over. This really helps the reader -- particularly the reader who knows almost nothing about the Czech Republic -- find themselves, not only in the geography but the history (cultural and otherwise). obviously, I'm no expert on the Czech Republic,, but I can understand a little more than I used to. Just the first couple of usages of "Perv" to indicate an illegal drug threw me -- but between the narrator finally calling it Pervityn and a search engine, I got a little lesson in drugs during WWII.
It doesn't take long for the book to try to get the reader on the side of these two characters -- maybe there's more to them than the "fat feminist and the misogynist." I really found myself enjoying them as people, not just as detectives. We spend -- for reasons that will become clear when you read this -- more time with Dvorska than her partner, and she is a charming, dedicated detective, fully aware of her limitations and sure how to overcome them.
The writing was good but I thought it could be sharper -- there's an odd word choice or two (early on, the detectives start talking about the mayor's death being an execution, not a murder); there's a lot of recapping/rehashing something that was just done/considered/decided a page or two earlier -- the kind of thing that makes sense for serialized novels, but this doesn't appear to be on. Still, the voice is engaging, as is the story -- and you get caught up enough in it that you can easily ignore a few things that'd normally bug you.
I was caught totally off-guard by the ending. I didn't expect that to happen at all -- my notes toward the end feature short words like "what" and"why?" But primarily my notes consist of question marks, exclamation points, and combinations thereof. This is a great sign for mystery and thriller novels. Blanchard did a great job setting things up so that there's a dramatic reveal and one that isn't seen chapters away. I do think some more ground work could have been laid early on so that it didn't seem quite so out of nowhere. But it was effective enough, that I really don't want to complain about it.
This is a pleasant read -- it's close enough to being a cozy that I could recommend it to friends who predominately read those, and twisted enough that those with more grizzled tastes can sink their teeth into it, too. The characters are winning, charming and the kind that you want to spend time with. It's a good introduction to a series exotic enough for most English readers to feel "alien" and yet full of enough things so you don't feel cut off from what you know. There are obviously future cases for these two in the works, and I plan on getting my hands on them when I can.