Murder across the Centuries

Fictional detectives battle killers in Vienna and New York

detective 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
detective 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
GEMÜTLICHKEIT IS A WORD that Vienna made famous. The city is replete with cozy cafés and the welcoming odors of the ubiquitous Wiener Schnitzel emanate from the restaurants.
If you want to get a taste of the imperial Habsburg capital at the turn of the century, you’ll find it in J. Sydney Jones’s enticing portrait.
“Requiem in Vienna” conjures the splendors of the city, with its grand palaces and broad boulevards offset by charming eateries.
Fashionable gentlemen, and ladies in colorful mid-summer dress, promenade along the Wiedner Hauptstrasse as they saunter from café to café drinking cups of strong coffee and partaking of zwetschgenstrudel, made with freshly baked plums, as attentive waiters in black tuxedoes and white ties hover round them.
The jangle of the electric tram juxtaposes with the clip clop of the horse-drawn fiaker… Whoa, hold up there. What century are we talking about? Well, actually the year is 1899 and Vienna is still enjoying the fruits of its imperial glory.
The city is in the forefront of literature, science and music. Many of the leading practitioners are Jews, or former Jews. The bad news is that Vienna is a hotbed of religious prejudice and racism, and recently elected an anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, who once proclaimed: “I myself decide who is a Jew and who isn’t.” A few years later, a struggling painter, named Adolf Hitler, will arrive in Vienna and soak up the rabble-rousing polemics of politicians such as Lueger.
However, the death camps are still decades away and Jones draws us into the creative milieu that Vienna fostered. The biggest name in music at the turn of the century is Gustav Mahler, who stars in our story as the intended victim. Mahler, despite having converted to Catholicism from Judaism to secure the post of director of the Hofoper, the Austrian royal court opera, is being regularly pilloried in the anti-Semitic press. He is at the height of his career, but his dictatorial style has made him many enemies.
Jones’s protagonist is Karl Werthen, an assimilated Jewish lawyer who dabbles in solving crimes. When he is approached by a Mahler groupie, Alma Schindler, later to become his wife, to investigate a series of accidents that she believes were attempts on the composer’s life, Werthen is dubious but agrees to take the case. He is aided by his friend Dr.
Hanns Gross, who has virtually invented the new discipline of “criminalistics,” and describes himself as “the foremost criminalist in the empire.” He enjoys using science to show up the plodding police in Vienna, just as a colleague, Sherlock Holmes, does in London.
It is not long before Werthen uncovers a conspiracy which, he believes, targets Vienna’s leading musical lights, foremost among them, Mahler. The number of dead bodies multiplies before Werthen and Gross eventually manage to get a lead on the killer.
Jones, who has written two guidebooks about the city, certainly knows his Vienna. This is evident in his second tightly-written and gripping Karl Werthen mystery where he leads us on a merry, if murderous, waltz that is an authentic evocation of the old imperial city of just over a century ago.
THE AMBIANCE IS MUCH gloomier in Matt Beynon Rees’s fourth Palestinian murder mystery, “The Fourth Assassin.” Dapper, fashion-conscious Bethlehem school principal and freelance sleuth, Omar Yussef Sirhan, has to dash out and buy an unfashionable woolen NYPD beanie and down overcoat, to counter the foul winter weather he encounters on a visit to New York.
But worse is to come, as we have seen in Rees’s previous three Omar Yussef mysteries.
No sooner does the mild-mannered, paunchy, balding, fifty-something history teacher show up, then the corpses are sure to follow.
In New York for a United Nations conference, O.Y. braves the weather to visit his youngest son Ala, who lives in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn also known as “little Palestine.” He arrives at Ala’s apartment and the mayhem begins. O.Y. finds a headless body in one of the beds. Ala is the No. 1 murder suspect, and is arrested by a tough Palestinian-American detective. O.Y.
sets out to prove his son’s innocence and stumbles onto an intra-Arab plot that threatens the Palestinian president, who is attending the UN session.
The bodies proliferate as O.Y. doggedly tracks the conspirators and unravels the plot against the president (incidentally getting his son off the hook).
Former top journalist turned novelist, Rees has ventured out of Palestine this time, but uses his finely honed reporting skills to elicit the flavor of a little corner of Palestine in Brooklyn, where women wear the hijab and Arabic is the prevalent language.
O.Y. even manages to take some time out from his quest and spend some welcome moments tucking into traditional Palestinian cooking at a Bay Ridge eatery.
Rees once again uses his fictional character to hold up a very critical mirror to Palestinian society. O.Y.’s detecting skills are somewhat ham-fisted, but his political courage is boundless. Ignoring threats by his superior in the Education Ministry, he is relentless in chastising the Palestinian leadership for corruption in a speech “about the reality of Palestinian life,” which he delivers to his Arab colleagues at the UN.
“You only know the political clichés, the stereotypes. They don’t spend their days longing for an independent state – they know their politics is too corrupt and divided for that to be achieved. They aren’t determined to sacrifice their children for this struggle either, it may be hard for you to understand, but what ordinary Palestinians want and what they battle for every day is precisely what’s denied to most of your citizens in the Arab countries: freedom and economic prosperity.”
Requiem in Vienna
By J. Sydney Jones
Minotaur Books
293 pages: $24.99
The Fourth Assassin
By Matt Beynon Rees
Soho Press
281 pages; $24