At the time, it must have seemed like a reasonable career move. As Eva Maria Staal’s debut novel, “Try the Morgue,” opens, Maria, her 25-year-old protagonist, has been lured by the promise of a “better salary and more ‘intelligent’ work” into taking a position as assistant to Jimmy Liu, an international arms dealer. Before long, she shows a talent for the cutthroat negotiating and fearless (often illegal) travel necessary in this field, and her duties expand.
Trade guns for an infant? Maria’s on it. Next thing you know, she’s driving a rental van around Beijing, loaded with smuggled NDM-86s, “the Chinese version of the Dragunov 7.62x54R caliber,” she explains. There’s no question that her mission is dangerous: “In China, when you’re ambushed by thirty sniper rifles at once,” Jimmy tells her, “the best thing to do is blow everything that moves to pieces.” What she’s thinking is more mundane: “I don’t know the first thing about babies.”
So, yes, it is possible that Maria is not your run-of-the-mill executive assistant. What she is, however, is a detail-oriented and unsentimental narrator willing to lead us into a thrilling underworld and out again, just possibly with our souls intact. From corrupt Pakistani cops to Chechen warlords, Maria meets them all and works out deals with most of them, more or less unscathed, until a falling out with Jimmy threatens not only their lives — and their business, which may be more important to them both — but Maria’s loved ones as well.
That this young Dutch woman has managed to continue a relationship with Martin, a regular guy who is somewhat aware of what she does, may be the hardest part of this book to swallow. However, it is also seemingly true. According to the publisher, this book (already a bestseller in Europe) is based on the real-life, arms-trading adventures of the pseudonymous author, who keeps her actual identity hidden — except for revealing that she is married to an optometrist.
Fact-based or not, “Try the Morgue” reads like a thriller. Maria is drawn in and eventually disgorged by the arms trade, having lost what little innocence she had along the way. She also sacrifices her primary relationship, which is with Jimmy, rather than Martin.
An enigmatic figure, the gay Chinese-Canadian is strangely protective of her. This is not always intentional: “Everyone should have someone like Jimmy,” Maria notes. “Compared to him, you feel like a saint.” For someone as tough as Maria, who resembles nothing so much as one of Megan Abbott’s noir queenpins, that’s saying a lot. Even her redemption, such as it is, is deadpan: “When you hang around regular people too much, you get a conscience,” she thinks. It’s almost a pity.
“Try the Morgue” is sharp and fast as a bullet. However, it isn’t the easiest read to get into. Jumping back and forth in time from “then” to “now” segments, the book seems unduly complicated at first. Why is the now-39-year-old protagonist buying herself a hand vacuum as a birthday present? What does that have to do with the Chinese Kalashnikov she fired as a 25-year-old on the preceding page? By the end, the reasons for such juxtapositions will be made deliciously clear.
Further complicating matters is the bare-bones writing style. Cool, almost to the point of being without affect, Staal’s first-person narrator is quite believable as a ruthless dealer. However, her “now” persona — as the mother of a charming 10-year-old girl — seems harder to read, especially as unsavory characters start to reemerge. Has she changed? Will Maria prove as tough as she once appeared? What has she really learned from Jimmy?
“When the ice cracks, you need to jump,” Jimmy tells her. “Timing is everything.” This is a leap you’ll want to take.
Veteran mystery novelist Clea
Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.