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Susan Daitch: Siege of Comedians

If you have read any other Susan Daitch novels, you will know that you are going to get a fairly complicated plot, one that deals with other cultures (i.e. not just U.S, culture) and a highly intelligent work, full of interesting ideas. This one may be her most ambitious work yet.

We start out with Iridia Kepler. Yes, her parents named her after iridium. Her parents failed to turn up to her high school graduation and when she got home, she found out why. They had been arrested, as their occupation was growing marijuana. The IRS seized the house, so Iridia lived with an aunt. Iridia became a forensic sculptor (i.e. she would take the skull of a crime victim and sculpt a face out of it for identification purposes).

There had been a recent bombing attack at a Global Pathways Wireless shop. It turns out that Global Pathways Wireless was a cover for a people trafficking operation and the bomb was a warning. Iridia had to reconstruct the faces of five unidentified victims. However, her parents’ transgressions follow her and her sole rival for forensic sculpting work in Brooklyn, Leo Sancton, had complained that she was unfit because of her parents. The work was transferred to Sancton but Holloway, the Missing Persons detective, gave her, as a consolation prize, three skulls that had been languishing in their basement for some while.

She manages to do two of them when she receives a visit from Sancton. He wants her to make the third one a sculpture of him, as he wants to disappear and be presumed dead. As this reduces the competition, she agrees.

That evening, at the invitation of a neighbour, Nora, she goes to an art gallery show. One exhibit consists of a revolving shooting gallery, whereby you can shoot (but without bullets) a series of heads, including D Trump and D Rumsfeldt. One of the heads, however,is that of one of her missing persons.

Fortunately the artist – his name is Finzi – is at the show and the pair track down the source of the head, an artist – Lemon Ice by name – who does props for theatrical products. Finzi had stolen it from her dustbin. She knew the woman whose head Iridia now had, a trafficked woman from the former Yugoslavia. She and other women were made to steal and act as prostitutes, with the threat of punishment for their relatives back home if they did not. This woman – Ada – escaped and stayed for a while with the artist but then suddenly left.

However, it seems the traffickers are still around, as they kill both Lemon Ice and Finzi and a thug makes her redo the heads with random faces. Nora’s gallery is trashed and her parents in jail threatened. It is time to move on.

While Iridia is heading for Vienna, where she will work for the Museum of Natural History, modelling faces of prehistoric hominids, we meet Martin Shusterman, another New Yorker. Shusterman plays the cello. He does not play particularly well but he can hear music and repeat it note for note. We follow his adventures as he heads off to Latin America to play his cello. He ends up in Buenos Aires where he meets Abril and they move in together. One of their neighbours is Karl Sauer, an old man from Vienna. However, it is the period in Argentina when people disappear and, one day, Abril is disappeared. He tries to find out where she has been taken but, fortunately for him, he is rescued by an FBI agent who was a friend of his parents, before he becomes the next victim.

He then heads back to Brooklyn and will study linguistics and become an expert at recognising accents, working with the police and then film companies. But he now becomes somewhat obsessed with Karl Sauer, his former neighbour. Did he report Abril to the authorities? He finds some information about Sauer and then heads off to Vienna where he continues his researches, which involve him, of course, in various adventures, including meeting Iridia at the Zoo.

Sauer was clearly a Nazi propagandist and apparently made a film which used concentration camp prisoners as happy, smiling extras. Immediately after the filming they were executed. There is some historical basis for this. Leni Riefenstahl, famed for her technically superb but politically horrific Nazi propaganda films, allegedly made a film, Tiefland, which featured Roma extras who were executed soon after.

Shusterman tracks down a fair amount about Sauer from the now seventy year old daughter of one of his actors and we learn about German film of the 1930s and 1940s as well as Sauer’s somewhat shady story. However all roads lead to 39 Nachtfalterallee (which seems to be fictitious – is the German for moth which is probably irrelevant). It had been owned by a family making lenses but had been taken over by the Nazis where it housed both offices (including Sauer’s office) and Nazi torture chambers. The building was being knocked down so , when Shusterman learns about it, he hurries to it. An archaeologist called Petrovic (from Sarajevo, where he had been during the siege of that city) is working there and shows Shusterman. Shusterman does recover a Sauer film, apparently set in the United States and showing US nationals warmly welcoming Nazis “liberators”.

Just as we thought things were getting sorted out, they become more complicated. A nearby terrorist attack causes the building to further weaken but reveals more. Clearly the building or, rather activity on the site, goes much further back than the lens maker.

Firstly Iridia reappears, reconstructing dead bodies found in the building. More particularly we now get a new story, dating back to the Siege of Vienna. It involves Unna who inherits a building and sets up a brothel in the building, which continues to function throughout the siege and afterwards. We follow her story, the story of Vienna at that time and, more particularly, the story of three trafficked women – Adila, Safiye and Luna. All three have a very hard time of it and end up in Unna’s brothel. The assumption is that the at least two of the skeletons Iridia is working on may well have been two of these women.

Clearly, Daitch shows how badly people, and women in particular, have been treated through the ages – the East European women in New York in the twenty-first century, Abril disappeared in the twentieth century and Adila, Safiye and Luna trafficked in the seventeenth century. These crimes, of course, have all been perpetrated by horrible, evil men, often helped by men like Sauer, the soldier Shusterman meets in Buenos Aires and a host of other men who are implicated in this book.

This is a very complex book. I have only touched on the major plot but there are a variety of digressions from German cinema in the Nazi period to accents which Shusterman studies, from Iridia’s sculpting to the whole Missing Persons activity in New York, from the making of a The Planet of the Apes prequel to alligators and a whole lot more. It is a superb and complex read and shows Daitch is still very much at the peak of her powers and should clearly be better known.

First published in 2021 by Dzanc Books