The Keeper of Hands by J Sydney Jones
The Keeper of Hands by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2013) A Viennese Mysteries Novel is the fourth in the series featuring Advokat Karl Werthen who’s disconcerted to learn his father may be acquiring a house close to his in the countryside around Vienna. Distracting him, he’s indirectly approached by Frau Josephine Mutzenbacher to investigate the murder of one of the prostitutes working in her justly famous high-class brothel. The young woman who looked thirteen to appeal to clients of that persuasion has been murdered, her body found in a nearby park. Having talked with the Madame, her brother and the girl who shared a bedroom with the victim, our hero sets off to track down Peter Altenberg, a man he’s recognised as one of the victim’s clients, an eccentric by virtue of his class (if he’d been poor, he might have been considered insane). From him, the trail of breadcrumbs leads to Arthur Schnitzler, the writer and playwright who may have upset some of the military with his latest play. He’s recovering from a beating and begs our hero to add the identification of his attacker to his list of things to do. It’s therefore fortuitous that Doktor Hanns Gross is free to offer a helping hand and the benefit of his experience as a criminologist. Then along comes Frau von Suttner. Our hero’s reputation as an investigator is suddenly bringing him more work than he can comfortably fit into his lifestyle so his wife and secretary take on that task. Then the investigators uncover a connection between the dead prostitute and Count von Ebersdorf who, by coincidence is also recently dead: of food poisoning. He was something “sketchy” in the government, i.e. a spy.
Fin-de-siècle Vienna has always been considered central in the manoeuverings between power blocks. This reflects both its geographical location and its cultural and political importance. The rise of Modernism in the latter part of the nineteenth century produced a crisis for liberalism and laid the foundations for the Europe we know today through the work of great minds like Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, and others. It was a city which produced extremes of optimism and pessimism — a society in flux and, more often than not, resigned to failure, a fact seen in its virulent anti-Semitism and the political disputes between the different nationalities that came together in the city. Spying was a way of life.
From this introduction, you will realise this book is like Vienna, i.e. it sits on the fault lines between different genres. It is, in the same breath, a murder mystery, a conventional thriller, an espionage thriller with political overtones, and a historical novel. As a picture of a city in times gone by, this is a remarkable technical achievement. Too often authors are tempted to show off their knowledge of the place and its history. Just think of all the hours of research that go into writing books like this and admire the self-discipline of the author in interweaving just enough to give us the flavour of the place without submerging us with detail. Then as to the shape of mystery itself, we start off along the conventional line of following the progress of the investigation into the murder of the prostitute, looking over the shoulders of the investigation team as it pushes forward. Then we divide the point of view and see the scene from the other side of the fence. With the context for the murder(s) starting to come into view, we have the pleasure of watching all the disparate elements coming together in a most elegantly constructed plot.
The title is a reference to the barbaric practice of cutting off the hands of slaves who were less than active in their work. Since those responsible for enforcing discipline were only paid by results, a designated officer had to keep the hands and dispense payment when it fell due. In this novel it’s a reference to the signature for our serial killer. All of which leaves me full of praise for The Keeper of Hands. It contrives to be a historical novel with surprisingly modern resonances in the current rivalry between the branches of different intelligence services. It’s a winner!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.