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.
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.