Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to the nature and morality of war. Putting this in context, over the years, a number of nations have attempted to characterise the initiation of hostilities as being “just” in the abstract philosophical sense of the word. The preemptive nature of each attack across national boundaries is said to be moral when the utilitarian rule of proportionality is satisfied. That the harm resulting for the few injured or killed during the attack will be outweighed by the good for the majority of citizens who survive. Of course, this requires us to overlook the morality of inflicting the actual injury or death of all the victims in the first wave of the attack and assess the extent of the benefits retrospectively: something the victor has no difficulty in doing when in control of the measurement process. One of the wars in which neither side thinks the proportionality test was satisfied is the ironically named Great War. This was war by attrition. The side still having some men able to fight would win. Indeed, so many died that any measurement and balancing process became rather meaningless. So chaotic was the management of this war that any progress made in the ebb and flow of the conflict was often due to simple luck or accident.
The German Agent by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is built around the history of the Zimmermann Telegram which, in 1917, was a backdoor deal between Germany and Mexico that the latter would enter the Great War should the US decide to intervene against Germany. The idea was that Germany would assist Mexico to recover Texas and so tie down US forces on home soil. This book explores the political and dangerous physical world of negotiation when an equivocal America is to be tempted into joining with Britain in fighting against the German Empire. The problem from Britain’s point of view is twofold. It must be able to satisfy the Americans the telegram is genuine. But in doing so, it must attempt to conceal the fact the intelligence service has cracked the code in which it was written. Once the Germans realise the telegram has been intercepted, they need to prevent it from being delivered to the Americans. In this, they rely on an agent, Max Volkman.
His background is not quite standard. He managed to survive one of the many futile charges across No Man’s Land, killing an impressive number of the “enemy” in the process. He was decorated for his heroism but, when he showed little enthusiasm for returning to the frontline, they retrained him as a spy. He should be the perfect weapon. He’s gone beyond fear, facing death and not flinching. But in reality, the experience has left him damaged. He’s not the coldblooded killer the Germans think him to be. This does not mean he’s incapable of killing. Far from it. But this is a man whose mind is trying to decide what’s right for him. After two years in America as a sleeper, he’s to intercept the British man thought to be carrying the Telegram. Almost immediately, he has to kill a local, an innocent civilian, an old man who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In trench warfare, death is dispensed anonymously. This is the first time he has killed someone face-to-face. This is murder. It’s unsettling to a man like this agent. In a war, killing the enemy is the job. By killing the enemy, you are shortening the war and protecting your comrades in the trenches. In a neutral country, killing an old man is what? Perhaps this is a question only a man with a conscience would ask. Well, as this book’s plot develops, the question becomes more personal and less avoidable.
The problem with the book is easily stated. Because the actual history of the Great War is reasonably well known, there’s little suspense. The average reader will know whether the agent succeeded in preventing the Telegram from being delivered to the US President. This does not mean the book is without interest and some excitement. Obviously, the agent is initially determined to carry out his role and there are some good chase sequences and the way in which he stalks the British man carrying the relevant information is fascinating. But the focus of the book fails to create any real degree of empathy with the protagonist. It would have been possible to give us a better view of the man as his fledgling conscience comes back into play and he has real decisions to make. Those with a more jingoistic view of the world will want to cheer if the German fails and boo if he succeeds. In the end, perhaps, neither response is appropriate because he proves just as human as the rest of us. This leaves me slightly ambivalent. The German Agent is beautifully written and the details of the period hold great interest but, for me, it lacks dynamic tension. It’s a book I admire but I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds as a historical thriller.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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 Germany of 1945 after the end of the war was in terrible shape. It was not politically convenient at the time to tell the victorious citizens back home just how much damage the Allies had managed to inflict upon German cities. Nor did the Allied leaders admit just how much aid was going to be necessary to keep the survivors alive, particularly since contemporary US policy was to deny food to surviving Germans. There was also a conspiracy of silence as about half-a-million Germans disappeared to the East never to be seen again. No-one liked to talk about revenge through ethnic cleansing. Even today, this is a very sensitive subject. Those who were left first camped out in the ruins, chasing food on the black market, using cigarettes as currency. As the months passed and after the end of the events described in this book, they endured what’s become known as the hunger winter 1946/7 where survivors fled the cities and tried to find food in the countryside. This was despite Hoover’s reluctant agreement in 1946 to allow charitable organisations to begin food shipments to Germany to prevent the children from starving. The title, Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones (Mysteriouspress.com original, 2013) A Mystery of the Third Reich is a reference to the legacy of the Reich as betrayal, ruin, rubble and grief. Although there were scare stories of Werwolf brigades left behind as guerillas, the reality was a docile people desperate to survive and find any relatives still alive. While the Russians and French engaged in reprisals, the British and Americans put their weight behind the trials at Nuremberg. Ironically, the trials evoked little local interest. The people couldn’t have cared less what happened to the men who’d led them into this mess.
My reason for starting in this way is that modern generations fail to understand the true extent of the horror experienced both by the German survivors and the occupying forces that became their jailers. Although this book to some extent skates over the surface of the problems, it’s good to see a writer of this quality take the brave decision to set the book in this somewhat controversial period of history.
Captain Nathaniel Morgan, born Morgenstern, is set up as the potential scapegoat if the Allies can’t identify the killer of three men of different nationalities in different parts of Nuremberg. At three day intervals, the killer has slashed the throats of a Russian, American and French soldier. To help, Morgan secures the release of ex-Chief Inspector Werner Beck, a German police officer who had fallen foul of politically connected factions at the end of the war, but who has experience in tracking serial killers. Still short-handed, they recruit Wieland Imhofer, a one-armed private investigator, to help them pursue the killer. Meanwhile Kate Wallace, daughter of a powerful US Senator, is learning her way around the city as a reporter on her first important overseas job. The investigators fear a British soldier will be next, yet the fourth victim turns out to be a Polish civilian. Curiously, this slight shift in the pattern of nationalities and the dates gives them an insight into the plans of the serial killer. Two possible theories emerge. From the first two deaths, this could be someone eliminating the competition in the black market. But the French officer seems not to have had direct connections to illegal trade. This leads to the second theory which is that the murders are political and leading up to a grand gesture to coincide with the first major trial at the Nuremberg court. News that the Allies can’t stop a serial killer and some more serious “terrorist” outrage would seriously distract world attention from the trial itself. For that reason, the Allied Powers are anxious to prevent news of the killings leaking to the Press. Morgan and Beck come under increasing pressure to catch the killer before news leaks.
Although there’s one convenient coincidence which ultimately leads to the discovery of the killer’s identity, this is a nicely paced investigation as the Jewish and German policemen set differences aside and try to act like “proper” policemen in a world turned upside down by the war. Setting everything against the ruins of a once great city at a moment the Allies want to make a pivotal entry in the discourse of their victory narrative gives us a dramatic backdrop. There’s a pleasing confluence of historical factors in play in these ruins. People are the sum of their life experiences. Many Germans have been reduced to little more than feral beasts, abandoning much of their humanity in their drive to survive. Others have managed to maintain something of their past status and dignity. While above the chaos and, to some extent, indifferent to it, the four occupying powers spar amongst themselves over the true nature of their roles in this catastrophic situation. It’s through this tension and the interactions between the different groups that the truth will slowly emerge. In this let’s remember that there were good Germans like Oskar Schindler who helped Jews, and that many of the Allies were profoundly anti-Semitic and indelibly racist. There’s a revealing moment when a young white GI shoots a black solder dead in the street only to be arrested by Morgan. In this book, the minorities have to stand up for each other against the bigotry surrounding them. Some of those we meet look forward to a future when differences will have faded away. Others are bound in the past and committed to the notion that differences must be maintained at all costs.
While I have the slight sense that punches have been pulled so that modern sensibilities will not be overly disturbed, Ruin Value remains a bold piece of writing and a very pleasing serial killer investigation and thriller. It’s well worth reading.
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.