A Matter of Breeding by J Sydney Jones
History in its more passive form is little more than a factual recital of what we know about events in the past. But, of course, we are always free to reinterpret events to create different sets of meanings for different purposes. So, for example, we might want to inspire a new sense of patriotism, so resurrect stories of glorious victories while suppressing stories of the more disreputable shenanigans. Or it might be convenient to scapegoat particular groups to divert blame. Or to maintain someone’s high status by concealing the fact of an illegitimate birth. Or to protect a nation’s investment in an iconic product by concealing evidence of possible defects in the product. Manipulated information can be used for so many different purposes. Once those in power can control access to information or plant new information in the discourse, factual reality becomes mutable to fit the exigent circumstances.
A Matter of Breeding by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is the fifth in the Viennese Mysteries series and sees us back with the same core of characters who must investigate a murder or two, and navigate much political intrigue to arrive at outcomes satisfactory to those in power. Karl Werthen, a lawyer in Vienna, has worked with his wife, Berthe Meisner, on a number of criminal investigations. She’s now feeling despondent. She might have expected Karl to stay by her side after she lost their second child in a miscarriage, particularly because it’s possible she may not be able to conceive again. But the loss may be driving them apart.
In fact, Karl has gone off to Styria with Bram Stoker, some author fellow who’s visiting to promote his books. It seems vampires are at large and an expert’s help is called for. Three mutilated bodies have been found, one of which may have been drained of her blood. In the other two cases, there were other signs suggesting a possible supernatural element. When they arrive, they find the “criminalist” Doktor Hanns Gross already called in. He’s trying to introduce the scientific method to the investigation of crime, but struggling against the prejudice against intellectualism. Common sense police officers and magistrates prefer the traditional methods. However, Gross has also received what may be a note from the murderer challenging him to find out whodunnit. The vampirism and other elements are therefore probably only window dressing, designed to confuse and deflect attention. The most recent victim worked for Christian von Hobarty — the surname is actually an anagram of Bathory, the family of the Blood Countess in the sixteenth century. As the investigation proceeds, Werthen and Stoker interview the families and others who have have information about the women killed. There’s nothing conclusive, all three girls seeming well-liked. The only hint of possible difficulty is the unannounced pregnancy of the most recent victim. No-one knows who the father might have been, although there’s a suspicion. . . Then the police arrest Gross. . . It’s a matter of professional jealousy getting in the way of the facts. Fortunately another murder occurs while our good Doktor is behind bars. This rather excludes him from suspicion.
As to Berthe, an independent challenge arises to help relieve her sadness (and her jealousy that Karl gets all the best cases). Karl’s father, Emile von Werthen, may be caught up in a scandal. It’s being suggested the bloodline of the Lipizzaner horses may have been compromised by a fraudulent stud line. If this proves true, Emile may be disgraced and financially ruined because he’s an investor in the breeding firm accused. Interestingly, the body of Captain Putter is found at the Lipizzaner stables on Stallburggasse. The authorities are keen to write the death of this riding master at the Spanish Court Riding School as a suicide. But Berthe never likes coincidences, so she goes to find the journalist who’s investigating the possible fraud. Having found a connection with the Captain’s death, she’s then contacted by Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a “delicate” matter. Yes, it’s the horses. The dead Captain left a brief note implying his honour could not stand the shame of the looming scandal.
At one level, the book is dealing with universals. When a child in utero is lost, the pressure on a couple can lead to destructive emotions. They must grapple with the truth of their relationship and decide whether they want to save it. When a man’s honour is impugned at a time and in a culture where some levels of personal shame cannot be tolerated, decisions must be made on how to react. If questions of honour are scaled up, this may affect the status and reputation of royalty or the nobility. It may even affect the integrity of the nation itself. At another level, this is an historical mystery in which our team of three (plus visiting author) must untangle a complicated plot involving murder, and possible fraud, corruption, and political manipulation. It’s all presented in a rather delightful package. Even the subtext of the deeply rooted sexism and racism that permeated the age is understated, making its point without dominating the work — although there are a couple of jokes at the expense of some of the dinosaur males we encounter. Altogether, A Matter of Breeding is a thoughtful but entertaining mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.