Translated from German by Tim Mohr
Alex Beer’s book had to be put on hold during German Literature Month, due to the binding fault in my original copy. It started at page 35! This was fortuitous as her Viennese post-WWI setting revisits elements encountered in the #germanlitmonth readalong title, Joseph Roth The Emperor’s Tomb: the setting, the coming to terms with the loss of Hapsburg Empire and the struggle of war veterans to adjust to their straightened circumstances. But because this is a modern crime novel it is much more gutsy, and the pace a lot snappier.
In fact by the end of the first chapter – only 2 pages long – I sensed this was going to hold me spellbound. I wasn’t wrong.
Inspector August Emmerich’s senses don’t fail him either. When the body of shell-shocked veteran Dietrich Jost is found in the Viennese woods, everyone but Emmerich is eager to write off the death as a suicide. Trouble is he doesn’t work in the Leib und Leben division; his job is to capture black marketeers. However, he decides to surreptitiously investigate the death – which leads to all kinds of aggro from his boss, and all kind of wide-eyed wonder from his junior sidekick, Ferdinand Winter. What an apprenticeship he’s let himself in for!
No sooner are links established to two other veterans, than they turn up dead also! In the course of the investigation, Emmerich and Winter must visit the squalour of homeless shelters, befriend TB-riddled local prostitutes and crawl through the sewers of Vienna -with all its shades of The Third Man – to visit the hub of the chief black marketeer. (As I said, Beer is much more gutsy than Roth.) Emmerich is also forced to take favours from those to whom it is best not to be beholden ….
Emmerich’s difficulties aren’t confined to the professional sphere. He’s a war-wounded veteran himself, his leg wound giving him so much pain that he becomes dependent on the wonder drug of the time – heroin. His happy relationship with his partner, Louise, suffers not because of his career, but because her husband, missing presumed dead, returns unexpectedly. Suddenly he is once more alone, increasingly but secretly dependent on heroin, and his judgement not everything it should be. Fortunately, Ferdinand Winter, after providing a few comic moments due to his naïvety, possesses skills that Emmerich lacks.
The detailing is superb. Not just the recreation of post-WWI Vienna but the minutiae of everyday life. For example: the yellow staining in the murder victims’ mouths – caused by using egg substitute in Kaiserschmarrn. I enjoyed the growing relationship between Emmerich and Winter. I’m saddened by the complications in Emmerich and Louise’s lives and I’m most perturbed at the threat to Emmerich by the favour that must surely be returned in a future novel. I can’t wait for Europa Editions to publish it.