Jaya Gulhaugen was born in Berlin three months before the 1949 Airlift. She moved to Vienna in 1956 just before the Hungarian Revolution broke out. She was a teenager in the Congo during the Simba Rebellion. Growing up, she just took it for granted that life was a series of exciting adventures.
Diplomatic Impunity is the first mystery in what Jaya Gulhaugen hopes will be a series of Peggy Gilman whodunits set in exotic locales full of intrigue.
A shorter version of this article was first published as Book Review: Diplomatic Impunity by Jaya Gulhaugen on Blogcritics.
Diplomatic Impunity is a book with a distinctly cozy cover: a delightful still-life shot of a table-top, set with pretty china pieces, complete with whipped cream and Sacher Torte. The cover captures the atmosphere of this Viennese Christmas Mystery, which in its overall tone and writing style is also distinctly cozy with many a domestic scene and family outing. No need for the timid reader to fear anything resembling horror in this portrait of an American family, even though the father of the Gilman family is a CIA operative, even though he has been posted to Vienna at the height of the Cold War in the fifties, even though the opening scene of the novel depicts an ugly broken body, fallen onto the floor of a ballroom.
The sound of the fall, we are told, was muffled by “the high-spirited singing of Christmas carols.” The body has fallen to its death on Christmas Day, and after showing it to us, with some gruesome detail, the narrator, who sees and knows all, takes us back eight days to describe the events that led up to this mysterious fall. This eight-day narrative occupies the first half of the novel, and here the reader may be forgiven for wondering whether the mystery itself is not being muffled by the high-spirited family preparations for Christmas. There are many charming descriptions of family events, outings of parents and children to such places as the then famous Dianabad swimming-pool, the English Reading Room (“one of the family’s favorite spots in all of Vienna”), the outdoor skating rink near the Stadtpark, the American Protestant Church in the Dorotheergasse—these and other places that will evoke much nostalgia among readers like myself who actually remember Vienna in the fifties.
There is no doubting the authenticity of the Viennese atmosphere, as experienced by foreigners in those chilly, gray post-war days. Totally authentic too is the interaction between the American parents and their four children, dealing as they are, often amusingly, with living in a foreign country. So much is one caught up in the comings and goings of their lives that not until the second half of the novel where the mystery of the death on the ballroom floor begins to be unraveled, does the reader realizes, bit by bit, that in almost all of these earlier scenes of seemingly innocent amusement were buried clues to the solution of the mystery, or characters who turn out unexpectedly but plausibly to be bit-players or prime movers in the central drama.
This is, I think, very cleverly done. We have here a Viennese jigsaw puzzle where we can slowly work out how the pieces fit together, not actually seeing the whole picture until the last piece is put into place by the American wife, Peggy, who herself once worked for American intelligence, and has not lost her sleuthing instincts. This is fun, but what we also have is a portrait of an American family. Jim Gilman, a very benign CIA man, has the diplomatic cover of an attaché at the Embassy, and the family is living the privileged life of US diplomats in the midst of impoverished fifties Vienna, not long after the end of four-power-rule. Having seen the Vienna of those days myself from the angle of a poor European student who looked at rich Americans, as it were, from the outside, it is fascinating for me to look inside the lives of these people from another world, and see them as the Gilmans, kind, friendly, civilized, (including the CIA father) reveling in their good fortune at having a Viennese posting with a sometimes naïve but often endearing good will.
The characters come alive from the first page—in particular, I think, the American and British embassy types with their various kinds of class-consciousness and hierarchical thinking. The novel has its third person author-narrator who tells the story, but Peggy Gilman is the main character and carrier of the plot, and we see the characters essentially through her eyes. She sees more incisively into the American characters than into the important Viennese characters, such as the cook and the piano teacher, though their stories also figure, as we discover, importantly in the plot.
This novel will appeal to those readers who like an entertaining mystery, and are happy to immerse themselves in a foreign culture as full of stories and histories as the Viennese culture in the fifties was. Austria’s Nazi past, the war, the post-war scene, the temporary breaching of the Hungarian border in ’56, all these play a part not only in the setting of the novel but in its actual plot, and Jaya Gulhaugen is well on top of the history and of attitudes to it, such as the Austrian desire in those years simply not to talk about the recent past.
Sometimes perhaps, because she knows so much, she gives a little too much explanation, just as, knowing so much about her own characters, she gives a little too much direct explanation of their pasts, rather than allowing their dialogue (which is very good) and their actions to speak for themselves. In the first chapter, especially, she handles the exposition in perhaps too discursive a way for readers who want to get into the action of the story. But even if this disturbs you, read on, and you will be enticed gradually into trying with Peggy to solve the mystery of the body on the ballroom floor.
This novel is a thoroughly entertaining piece of story-telling and, for those who want to see it, a fascinating glimpse into a time that has passed.