The Country Mysteries of Aaron Paul Lazar

Aaron Paul Lazar is an all-American writer of popular mysteries. He sometimes calls them country mysteries, and this goes some way towards describing them. Because I come from Britain and have many connections with Europe, I might wish to call them “American country mysteries.” Certainly they are a far cry from the formulaic English country-house mysteries, and they do not in the least resemble the many English murder mysteries set (with notable lack of verisimilitude) in the charming little villages of the South of England. Lazar’s country mysteries are unique, at least in the context of my own reading.  And they are very American.  Why do I say that?  Because I cannot imagine finding anywhere but in the USA Lazar’s particular blend of romance,  family affection, church-going warmth, appetizing home cooking, enthusiastic gardening, breath-stopping suspense, villainous behavior with murderous intent, all put together with intelligence, good humor, story-telling skill and a bubbling-over of imagery, more than a touch of naïve and lovable optimism and an overpowering sense that although particularly nasty and violent men keep cropping up, East Goodland (well-named) in the Genesee Valley in upstate New York is still the best of all possible worlds.

Lazar is a prolific writer, and I am going to confine my discussion here to the first five of his Gus LeGarde mysteries. These are the novels that set him on the road to becoming a writer of mystery novels, and while he may have refined his writing skills in his later novels, these are the novels that drew me into his world, and I would like work out why, what is their attraction? Why do I keep coming back to see what is going on in East Goodland?

In order of their appearance they are:

Double Forté  and Upstaged, first published by Publish America in 2004 and 2005, and now re-issued by Twilight Times Books.

Tremolo: Cry of the Loon, published by Twilight Times Books in 2007

Mazurka, published by Paladin Timeless Books (a Twilight Times Imprint) in 2009

FireSong, published by Paladin Timeless Books (a Twilight Times Imprint) in 2011

All these novels are also available on Kindle and in numerous other e-reader formats, and since Aaron has agreed to be interviewed on this blog, I will be asking him more about the ways in which he wrote and published these novels, but today I want to concentrate on some aspects of the novels themselves.

The hero of this series of novels is Gus LeGarde—not a detective, not a policeman, but a professor. Not by any means a stereotypical professor. He is a professor of music in a local upstate New York college but we see a lot more of him in his house, his garden, his kitchen, his church, than in his college. These are no typical college mysteries with a cast of faculty members as suspects.  They are mysteries in which Gus himself is at the center, often not so much in a detecting role as in the role of potential victim of a dastardly character or characters who pursue him and his loved ones, often in hair-raising chases.  Professor he may be, but he is an outdoors type, who skis, rides horses, runs, swims and when necessary packs a mighty punch. He himself is the recipient of so many blows to the head that one would fear for his sanity if he did not have an amazing ability to get back on his feet and fight another day.

And yet Gus is not a violent man.  On the contrary, he is a loving, sensitive and of course musical soul who tends to get involved in crime only because he is concerned about his fellow men, and particularly about children, women—and animals too.  It is this concern and the compulsion to step in and help those in trouble that usually makes him, and often his wife, the direct target of various villains’ wrath.

When we first meet him in Double Forté, he is a widower, a middle-aged grandfather, who has already known tragedy in his personal life through the illness and death of his beloved wife, Elsbeth.  The circumstances of her death four years previously are gradually revealed in this first novel.  He often thinks of her and so she makes frequent appearances in this and the other novels. So does her twin brother, Siegfried, who is very much alive, and Gus’s best friend since they were all children together. Siegfried is one of the most appealing characters in a series full of appealing characters. He is a  strong and muscular man, six-feet-eight tall with blue eyes and a blond pony tail who suffered brain damage  in a childhood boating accident, and after years of therapy won back little of his childhood brilliance but developed into the “gentle giant” of the novels “without whom the family would be lost” (Double Forté,35).

Gus, the first person narrator of all these novels, is a man whose past is by no means banished from his present, and his thoughts often linger on events of his personal past, but at the same time he has a great lust for his present life, not only his romantic attachment, beginning in Double Forté, to a lovely young woman, Camille, nine years younger than he is, who continues to be a major player in all five of the novels. This is a tender physical relationship and Lazar describes its development right up to the honeymoon in Mazurka, and beyond.  His lust for life is also wonderfully manifested in his appetite for good food—grown and cooked largely by himself.  He prepares enormous meals for his big family—his daughter and her family live with him—and often for friends as well.  We see and smell and almost taste the wonderful fresh food at his table. (I write here as one who lives in New York City and have to make do with the Green Market at the weekend when farmers from upstate bring in their produce for us city-dwellers.)  Let your mind run on this “simple” Sunday dinner for the whole clan:

The aroma of roasted chicken filled the kitchen.    . . . I added four generous shakes of cinnamon to the apple sauce. I’d peeled and cooked several dozen twenty-ounce apples from Oscar’s tree in his backyard.  . . .  I lifted the collard greens from the stove and poured them into a strainer  . . . last night’s sudden early frost had turned their slightly bitter flavor into a sweet, musky taste  . . .I picked up a three-pronged fork and and poked the potatoes boiling in the large stockpot. I’d dug them from the cold soil that morning  . . .  (FireSong,215f.)

Gus often does some quite fancy cooking, but what pervades the novel for me, and plays a large part in giving them their healthy, homespun atmosphere, one might say, aroma, is the cooking of food straight from the soil. Musician as he is, a pianist who loves to play Chopin, Gus is close to the earth.

If you get caught up in his family  in the first two novels, you will be pleased to discover that the third novel, Tremolo, Cry of the Loon, returns entirely to the childhood of Gus and the twins, Elsbeth and Siegfried,  new immigrants from Germany. The scene is set in a  summer back in the sixties when the three children, ten and eleven years old, find themselves caught up in a series of adventures, launched in typical LeGarde manner by their desire to help a young girl whom they see fleeing through the woods pursued by an ugly, angry, predatory man, one of Lazar’s most villainous characters. Here they are not in East Goodland but in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine in a lakeside holiday camp run by Gus’s grandparents. The world of this summer camp is beautifully conjured up through the eyes of the children, in the background not only the cry of the loon, a bird of the region, but various other sounds and signs of the times, from the songs of the Beatles to the movie, “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” to the assassination of Kennedy and the crusades of Martin Luther King.  I enjoyed this excursion into Gus’s past, since I already knew the middle-aged Gus, but I think it might well stand alone and be successful as one of those cross-over books that can appeal to children and adults.

Lazar is obviously a man who loves children, and he depicts them with ease and without self-consciousness or artifice. Gus’s little grandson, Johnny, plays an important role in this series. Seeing him grow through four novels from a two-year-old, we fear for him when he is in danger as for a child we know.  A member of Gus’s family, he is bound to be danger quite often! A mystery series that so intimately involves a whole family cannot but have a disproportionate number of disasters befalling its members, and in this series one might complain that there are a few too many skeletons in the closet, too many people who have committed crimes or been subjected to criminal behavior.  And yet the overwhelming impression made by these five novels is a happy one, one reviewer has said they are “feel-good” novels.  If you look through the reviews you will be struck by the frequent occurrence of such concepts as “comfortable,” “soothing,” “endearing,”  “great book for a quiet afternoon.”  At the same time, reviewers also talk about them as “page-turners,”  “electrifying story lines,” even “a chilling thriller.”  How does Lazar manage this?   One reviewer says, “The characters are just plain nice,” and this does sum up most members of the LeGarde family and their friends.  I like them too and would happily sit at their table and eat their splendid food. But these are not readable family romances. What changes them into something else is the intrusion of people who are just plain nasty into this nice world.  Not too many characters in a Lazar novel straddle the nice-nasty hurdle. They are generally one thing or the other.

The nastiest characters of all crop up in Mazurka, the honeymoon novel that does not take place at all in verdant East Goodland, but starts in turbulent weather in a plane across the Atlantic, where Gus and his bride, Camille, are on their bumpy way to Paris, taking Siegfried with them to visit long-lost relatives in Germany.  Lazar’s descriptive powers are not confined to upstate New York. He does a fine job of conjuring up Paris, seen through the eyes of excited American tourists on their first visit to the city on the Seine, and later on we have an equally happy picture of the Inner City of Vienna. I do not intend to destroy the suspense of the plot. Suffice to say that the nastiest characters in all of the five novels are the bunch of rabid Nazi youths in Mazurka  with whom Gus already tangles on the plane and who subsequently pursue Siegfried, whose mother was Jewish, and through him, Gus and Camille, through a series of hair-raising adventures, beginning with an astounding chase sequence in the catacombs of Paris and ending in an unspecified location in Germany or Austria where unspeakable events occur.  I did wonder here whether the later incidents were not too “over the top” in presenting a very frightening picture of right wing activity in Europe today.  Lazar did however make it clear that some of the ringleaders in all this were actually American Nazis, thus presenting it all as a global phenomenon rather than something designed to discourage Americans from touring Germany!

In fact the German language has a constant presence in the Lazar novels through Siegfried who in the disabling accident in his youth lost the English language for a while and reverted to his native German, which he has never completely managed to remove from his speech. Fragments of his speech are therefore often German, a device that is more effective than simply saying he has a German accent.

Lazar takes plenty of time describing his characters, not only Gus’s family but all the other characters, from the two very decent policemen who are his friends and helpers, to the ugly thugs who, by necessity, appear in his novels. Lazar is never in a hurry. People looking for purely action novels must look elsewhere. He pauses constantly to describe how the characters look, what they are wearing, what they are thinking, whether it has anything to do with the plot or not. He takes time to describe the sound of bullfrogs, the way fireflies look when Gus chases them with his grandson; one whole scene centers on shelling peas; he takes us through the making of a whole Thanksgiving Dinner; he even gives us two full sermons preached by the minister of his church (FireSong). Typical of his narration, he will pause right in the middle of an action to say, for example:

I was momentarily distracted by a small white-tailed rabbit who hopped out of the bush to my right. He sat up and twitched his whiskers then went down on all fours about ten feet from us, freezing in the open grass in a misguided attempt at camouflage (FireSong, 143).

And yet with all this delight in leisurely narration, Lazar has the ability suddenly to quicken the pace and create the kind of suspense that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, turning the pages rapidly as someone, usually Gus, races against time and all the odds to escape some dire force, be it pursuing villains, forest fires, rising waters – sometimes all of the above in one sequence. I have twice gone past my subway stop in NYC, caught up in such a sequence.  This is a very particular narrative ability, and Lazar has it. He also has the ability convincingly to describe complex physical feats, climbing up or down dangerous slopes, for example or struggling through mazes of underground tunnels in such a way that the reader is following step by dangerous step.

There are usually subplots in these novels that, depending on how you view them add richness to the central mystery, or upend the balance of it, such as the mysterious guest in Tremolo, the amazing family connection with a well-known composer in Mazurka, the hidden room on the Underground Railroad in FireSong.  Of these five novels, the one that most resembles a traditional murder mystery is Upstaged, precisely because it has no actual sub-plot, though it is, like the others, framed in the ongoing story of developing relationships within the LeGarde family. It is the most tightly plotted of the five novels, centering on a high school production of a musical written by Gus and directed by Camille. Strange accidents in rehearsals quickly turn out to be signs that someone is plotting against Camille, people are hurt, and an actual murder occurs. The cast of the play and those concerned in the production are the prime suspects, and Gus, along with his friends in the police force, gradually close in on the murderer, a particularly nasty (American) specimen though I for one did not recognize him as the culprit until close to the end.

One reviewer has described Double Forté as “a nice cozy mystery,” but I have hesitated myself to describe these mysteries as “cozy.”  Why?  They certainly do not contain gratuitous violence or sex. They deal much more in romance rather than in horror, even though there are plenty of fisticuffs and chases.  But another word, rather than cozy comes to my mind. The young boy, Gus, in Tremolo is taken to see “To Kill a Mocking Bird” by his liberal parents, who want him to understand something about America, and he is shocked at the racism and cruelty he sees in it. His parents try to explain to him the crimes of racism and rape.  The boy narrator says, “I was quiet all the way home thinking about Tom Robinson and his distraught family. I contemplated the acts of which some men were capable.”   And this, one feels, is what Lazar is always doing.  He can never quite believe that people can be as vile as he has to make them in order to make his mysteries work as mysteries. Perhaps these novels are, when all’s said and done, contemplative American country mysteries. This is not a word to set the mystery market on fire, but in my book it is high praise, whatever the market.

 Next week, I hope to ask Aaron Paul Lazar how he sees his mysteries himself.

Posted in country mystery, cozy mystery, murder mystery, review | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Fallada’s Portrait of a Police Detective in Nazi Germany

Fallada’s 1946 novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein  recently acquired best-seller status in the English-speaking world through the translation of Michael Hofmann in the new Melville House edition, Every Man Dies Alone.  It was based right after the war on Gestapo-files, acquired for Fallada’s use by the writer, Johannes Becher, who had just returned from exile to the Soviet Zone of Occupation, and was engaged in the task of re-building post-war German culture along anti-fascist lines. He hoped to inspire Hans Fallada to take a leading part in these endeavors.

The files documented the case of a working class couple who for a couple of years at the height of the Nazi terror, 1940-42, managed to elude capture by the Gestapo while leaving more than 200 postcards with block-lettered messages in Berlin buildings, mainly in their own working-class district of Wedding. On the postcards, they condemned in simple and crude terms the Hitler regime. Eventually they were caught, tried, condemned to death by the so-called People’s Court—and beheaded.  This was the outline of the real case against a couple called Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed with minutes of each other on the evening of April 8, 1943 in Plötzensee Prison in Berlin, and this case gave Fallada an outline for his last great novel where the amazingly dogged but doomed couple, a resistence-cell unto themselves, are called Otto and Anna Quangel.

Does this novel belong in a blog about mysteries, about detective fiction? It is not a murder mystery in the conventional sense where a detective tracks down a murderer and brings him or her to justice. It is however in large part a work of detective fiction in which a policeman tracks down a criminal, as defined in his own police state, and brings the person to justice, as defined in that state, now more readily defined as judicial murder. About three hundred pages of this 668 page-novel (in the latest German edition) focus on one police detective’s hunt for the enemy of the state who is distributing the cards.  Fallada fictionalizes the case of the Hampels—and one could write a great deal about how he does this (I might do that in a later post)—but there is not a character in the novel more interestingly fictionalized than the police detective who hunts down the Quangels:  Kommissar Escherich of the Secret State Police, known world-wide in its notoriously abbreviated from, the Gestapo—the Geheime Staatspolizei.

Who does not have a picture of the Gestapo?  The dreaded, ruthless, brutal body of men who in Hitler’s Germany and its colonies tracked down “enemies of the state,” from the small desperate cells of resisters who somehow maintained a presence, albeit small, throughout the Thousand Year Reich, to the individuals who committed a variety of smaller crimes such as listening to foreign radios or complaining carelessly about the conditions in the country or the conduct of the war. Many were the denouncers, who sold their friends and acquaintances for a lot less than  thirty pieces of silver, and many were the denounced who ended their lives in Gestapo cellars or concentration camps.  This was life in the Nazi state, and in the popular, sensational versions of it that have been aired many times across the film and TV screens of the world, chief among the responsible villains were the Gestapo, the SS, the known thugs of the Nazi world.

But where, one might wonder, were the ordinary policemen? Was there no civilian police force entrusted in a general way with keeping order in the country?  Was the entire police force of Nazi Germany engaged in tracking down, imprisoning and sending to their death all groups who “threatened the health of society,” i.e. Jews, as is well known, but also all kinds of  “asocials,”  homosexuals, handicapped persons, prostitutes, “foreigners” of various kinds  . . . and so on? There certainly were no police in evidence as protectors of these threatened people.

In Fallada’s Escherich, we see a police detective well on into the years of Nazi domination in the early war years of the forties. What kind of a policeman is he?  He introduces himself at one point, with the deliberate intent to intimidate: “I am Kommissar Escherich of the Gestapo.”  But he is not a uniformed Gestapo officer. When he makes his first appearance in the novel, Fallada describes him as “a tall gangling man with a loose sandy moustache, light gray suit, everything about him so colorless you could have taken him for an outgrowth of the file cabinet dust” (Hofmann’s translation), and when he makes his last exit from the novel, by self-inflicted violence, his thuggish superior Gestapo officer describes his exit as  “desertion! All civilians,” he rages, “are swine! Everything that doesn’t wear a uniform . . . belongs behind barbed wire.”

Escherich is one of the non-uniformed police inspectors, and he is proud of his status, as he often says, as an old “Kriminalist.”  He clearly comes out of the generation who were detectives of the old school and he has a much higher regard for the police methods of the old detectives than for those of the new Gestapo. “If we had a real police force,” he says at one point, “the postcard writer would be in our hands in twenty-four hours.”  Escherich works methodically, putting his little flags on the street plan of Berlin, to show where his boogey-man, as he calls him, has left his cards, gradually narrowing them down to three streets where no cards are found, and where he therefore assumes the man lives; he is no hurry to make arrests, preferring to do time-honored police work, and wait for the perpetrator to make a mistake and thus reveal his identity.  His superiors in the Gestapo headquarters want a lot more action, and have a greater inclination to nab possible subjects or witnesses and beat the truth out of them. Not so Escherich.

Do not imagine, however, that Fallada ever tries to suggest that this is because Escherich is a man of old-fashioned principle, a man who is out of sympathy with the state he now serves, or in any way in sympathy with the people he is tracking down.  The latter are of no interest to him. “Escherich hunted,” writes Fallada. “This old Kriminalist was a real hunter. It was in his blood. He hunted criminals as others hunted pigs. That the pigs and the criminals died when they were tracked down, that didn’t bother him.”  When he is handed the first card, and the functionary who gives it to him asks what will happen to the perpetrator, Escherich replies sardonically: “Do you really want to know? . . .People’s Court and off with his head. What’s it to me? What forces this guy to write such a silly card that no one will read or want to read? No, it’s nothing to me.  I draw my salary and whether I sell postage stamps or stick little flags in a street map, it’s all one to me. . . But when I get the guy . . . I’ll invite you to the execution.”

He says this in mocking tones, a way of impressing his listener with his superior posture of the disinterested professional—he may be indifferent to the kind of state he is serving, but Fallada leaves us in no doubt that he knows exactly what that state is all about. He knows that dropping postcards about the place denouncing Hitler leads straight to the executioner’s block.  Not his problem. Escherich knows what he is doing and for whom he is doing it.

So no doubt did Kriminalsekretär Püschel know, the man who in reality hunted down the Hampels in a similar methodical way.  Manfred Kuhnke, in his well-researched book on Fallada’s Last Novel (Falladas letzter Roman. Die wahre Geschichte) has assembled a good deal of information about Püschel, the externals of his life, the slow, stubborn way in which he pursued the Hampels  through two years of old-fashioned detective work and brought them in to the Gestapo prison and to the People’s Court, how he, along the way, pursued for a while the false trail of a work-shy gambler, and how he was himself kind enough in his manner (“I had the most pleasant treatment from the Kommissar” writes Hampel of Püschel, the man who knowingly turned him over to his executioners).  Püschel had been a policeman since 1924 and since 1934, a police detective, and shortly after the beginning of the war, he was transferred to the Gestapo in Berlin. This might have been Escherich’s career up to this point, since his career as a “civilian” police detective clearly predates the days of the Gestapo, but Kuhnke has traced Püschel’s career up to 1947, so, unlike Escherich, Püschl outlived the war and the Nazi state. It is possible that, like many other policemen of the Nazi era, he went on to pursue his career in post-war Germany. Kuhnke found no further trace.

Fallada had some of these details, but whereas he saw a mug-shot of Hampel, he never saw an actual picture of Püschel, and his colorless Escherich with the sandy moustache is purely his own creation.  He repeats these external descriptive details in classic leitmotif fashion again and again, but his Escherich, as he develops, turns out to be anything but colorless. How does Fallada create his living, breathing, fictional man out of the routine police officer and hard-boiled detective of the Gestapo files?  Not by filling in any of his personal life—we only ever see Escherich on the job.  What Fallada does is show the gradual transformation that takes place in him over his two-year obsession with his boogey-man, a transformation  nowhere to be found in the documents available to Fallada on the real Püschel.   Escherich becomes more and more obsessed with his boogey-man as a person, and ends up wanting to know what it is that makes this man do what he is doing. He is more and more under pressure from his thuggish superiors to show some action in the case, and it is essentially in the process of trying to keep them off his back and allow him to pursue the case in the way he knows best that he finds his own picture of himself and his job changing.

He is from the beginning a skilled interrogator, and Fallada never pretends that he has sympathy with the victims of his interrogations. He does not go in for fisticuffs—the man who succeeds him in his job frequently strikes his interlocutor, man or woman, in the face between questions—we never see Escherich hitting anybody, but he takes considerable long-drawn-out pleasure in verbally tormenting, for example, the pathetic Enno, the work-shy gambler (of the Gestapo files), tying him in knots, trapping him into signing a false confession. He literally kicks the small-time crook and denouncer,  Borkhausen out of his office, and cheerfully lets the bigger thugs outside in the corridor kick Borkhausen downstairs.

Because of the slowness of his methods, his lack of quick results, he eventually becomes himself the quarry of the men who drink themselves into a stupor, who scream at their victims, who punch them in the face.  Escherich is no hero. When his own teeth are knocked out onto his own office carpet, yes, then he realizes what violence really feels like.  When he is kicked down the same stairs as Borkhausen was, he feels in his own bones the distinctly unfunny side of physical violence.

There are commentators on the novel who suggest that when he is exposed to physical violence against himself, Escherich realizes that he has assimilated into a corrupt system.  I would say rather that he has always known it was a corrupt system, and it is not so much the experience of violence that illuminates for him his assimilation into it, but the slow dawning on him which begins much sooner that he is himself already corrupt. The actual turning point in Escherich comes when he blatantly violates his own policeman’s ethics by deciding that he will pass off the whining little gambler Enno deliberately as the perpetrator, even though he knows himself very well that he is not.  This decision leads him to one of the most impressively frightening and brilliantly narrated scenes in the novel when he, to use the jargon of our times “takes out” Enno for no better reason that to gain time for himself. I shall not describe this scene and so ruin the effect for a reader of the novel (this after all is a mystery blog), but it is to me a highpoint of the novel, and surely the low point of Escherich’s moral disintegration, rather than the scenes of his later mistreatment in the hands of his superiors. It constitutes the dramatic turning point in his career as a man and a police officer. Fallada signals this, describing how Escherich leaves his office on that fateful night, “with the dark suspicion that he will not be the same man when he comes back. Up till now, he was a civil servant, who hunted men as other people sell postage stamps, decent, industrious, according to the rules.”  When he comes back, he will be different.

And so Fallada shows the slow rot taking place in the man who knowingly but almost incredulously in his hunt for criminals becomes a criminal himself.  What happens later in the novel as Escherich is himself brutalized, is rescued from the Gestapo cellars to search again for the card-dropper, finds him, is then forced by his superiors to join in the physical tormenting of Quangel in his cell, recognizes that Quangel is a better man than he is, and puts an end, highly dramatically, to his own life, recognizing that he is the only actual convert that Quangel made, all this is pure Fallada drama and highly effective fiction. The melodrama of the last scene is heightened by a detail restored to the text in the latest unexpurgated version of the novel where the sandy moustache of Escherich is seen hanging bloodily on a lamp. (The early Aufbau editor did well, in my opinion, to leave that out.)

The last-ditch “conversion” of Escherich has, I would suggest, impressive though it is, not much to do with the reality of what went on in the police force in Nazi Germany.  But the sense of inner rot that enters his soul with the disposal of Enno, this does perhaps come close to the reality of what actually happened to the rank and file of the police in Germany, the mass of the police after the initial widespread weeding out of potential trouble-makers, as they gradually accommodated themselves to the undeniable fact that they were working for a vicious and criminal state.

The recent exhibit in the German Historical Museum in Berlin documents in terrible detail the Nazi take-over of the police.  It proves what one might have not wanted to know, namely that there was ultimately no distinction to be made between “ordinary policemen” doing their duty and servants of the Nazis fulfilling all the duties of the racist, totalitarian state. I quoted in an earlier post on this blog from the introduction to the Catalog from the section entitled,  “The War against Crime.”

Promises of career advancement were an important reason for the fact that that many criminal investigation officers after 1933 acted not merely as opportunists and receivers of orders, but worked quite consciously for the Nazi-regime and developed their own initiatives in keeping with the wishes of their superiors. There were indeed policemen who withdrew into niches of supposedly innocuous crime detection work;  some few even helped the persecuted. Typical however were the others: policemen who did not hesitate to use their time-honored methods of law enforcement searches, their finger-printing and photographic techniques and their card-catalogues of criminals in the service of the Nazi-system, civil servants who put into action the guidelines and procedures of the Nazi war on crime with bureaucratic precision and decisiveness  . . .  (p.48)

Here we see policemen of the generation of Escherich and Püschel, civil servants, concentrating on maintaining and furthering their professional standing as detectives, doing what they were told with zeal, no matter what it was. By the time Escherich or the real Püschel takes the stage in 1940-42, the chances of any active opponent of the regime remaining in office were virtually nil. The exhibit documents the way in which the Nazis very early went about eliminating any and all men and women in the police force who opposed or were likely to oppose them.  A prime example: the Berlin Police President, Grzesinski, his deputy Weiss, and another commander Heimannsburg, all of whom were outspoken defenders of the Weimar Republic, were imprisoned as early as 1932 and only released on their agreeing to give up their offices.  And by 1936 already, the leadership of all the police came under the office of Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler.

There is no evidence at all that Püschel in reality suffered a change of heart because of the example of Hampel. But Fallada cannot resist making his Escherich a much more interesting character than the Püschel of the files.  Fallada makes Escherich aware of his own inner rot.  Not, I suspect, because he necessarily imagined that this was typical of German policeman—that is something we will never be able to judge—but because inner rot was something Fallada knew about. This is not a novel by a writer who is trying to imagine what life was like in Nazi Germany. He had lived and worked there, and had himself accommodated in various ways to the Nazi-regime. He was certainly not an instrument of the Nazi horror, as his Escherich was, but neither was he a resister, like his Quangel.  Kuhnke describes how, when Fallada was first asked by Willmann, general secretary of the Cultural Association for the Democratic Renewal of Germany and close colleague of Johannes Becher, to write a novel based on the Gestapo files on the Hampels, he firmly refused, saying that he had not been a resistance fighter himself, he had let himself be carried along in the mainstream, and he did not want to appear better than he was (p.16).  The reasons for his changing his mind and writing the novel belong in another discussion, but Fallada with his many weaknesses had a certain honesty about himself that shines through his character-creation in his many novels.  In “Every Man Dies Alone,” Fallada gives his police detective a kind of self-knowledge, born not of Fallada’s knowledge of the German police, though in his own checkered career he had known many policemen, but born rather of his knowledge of himself.

Details of easily available editions of the novel in German and in English are given in my last post.

10 Amsterdamer Strasse, site of the house where the Hampels lived

Manfred Kuhnke’s book on the reality that underlies the fiction is, as far as I know, only available in German, but  perhaps he will be prepared to answer some questions for this blog.  I do not think that this post is my last word on Fallada. I hope interested readers will stop by and make some comments.

Posted in detective fiction | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Detecting Crime in a Police State: Fact and Fiction, Quotes

Reading William Ryan’s The Holy Thief and getting to know Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division set me to thinking about the role of a police detective in a totalitarian state, often called a “police state.” What does a regular police detective, someone used to seeking out criminals as a way of enforcing of law and order, do in a police state?  My mind went automatically to Hans Fallada’s Jeder stirbt für sich allein,[Everyone dies alone], and in particular to his police inspector Escherich, investigating crime in Nazi Germany.  And then I saw the exhibit in Berlin in the Historical Museum,(1 April to 31 July 2011): Ordnung und Vernichtung. Die Polizei im NS-Staat [Order and Destruction. The Police in the Nazi State]—an impressive and disturbing comprehensive study of this topic.   I am soon going to write on Fallada’s Escherich in this blog, but here are a few quotations to set you thinking about the issues involved.

From William Ryan, The Holy Thief , Chapter One

 Korolev scratched his neck as he mounted the stairs toward the second floor and considered what the removal of Commissar Yagoda’s statue might mean for the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division. Up until now the Workers’ and Peasants’ Militia, to give the Soviet Union’s regular police its full title, included among its responsibilities maintaining public order, directing traffic, guarding important buildings and sundry other tasks, not least of which was, of course, the investigation and prevention of criminal activity—which was where he and the rest of Moscow CID came in.  Most of the political work was left to the NKVD—State Security—although when you lived in a worker state, almost everything was political to some extent. In some people’s eyes, any crime was an attack on the entire socialist system, but the distinction between traditional crimes and political crimes still remained, for the moment at least.

And from Chapter 15:

[Speaking to Korolev]  “You’re an honest man. And you are a Believer, aren’t you?” Kolya seemed to be weighing him up.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe it isn’t. But what if, at some stage, you have to decide between your loyalty to the church and your loyalty to Comrade Stalin. How do you think you would decide?”

“I’m a loyal citizen of the Soviet Union.”

“But no Party member . . .”

An the last line in this chapter:

. . . Korolev knew the time for choosing between duty and life had come.

From: Ordnung und Vernichtung: Die Polizei im NS-Staat [Order and Destruction: The Police in the Nazi State], Catalog of the Exhibition, (Dresden, Sandstein Verlag, 2011) (my translations)

Exhibit No.64  Esslingers Entlassung aus dem Polizeidienst [Esslinger’s Dismissal from the Police Force]  Dortmund, 9 December 1933

Police Officer Eduard Esslinger took part on 19 April 1932 in Dortmund in an action against violent SA-men, in which the police stormed into an office of the Nazi party. Because of this, Esslinger and several colleagues were indicted on a charge of severe bodily harm and disturbing the peace. The court case against the policemen was conducted by a judge known to be sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Esslinger was sentenced to 15 months in jail. The sentence was upheld on appeal in 1933. The Nazi-press celebrated the verdict as a victory over the “Marxist soldateska.” Democratic newspapers criticized it as disproportionately harsh.  Many policemen interpreted it as a warning not to act against the National Socialist Party (p.132).

[My note: I have tried to find out what happened to Officer Esslinger later, but so far have found nothing. Does any reader know anything about him?]

From the introduction to the Catalog, Section entitled,  “The War against Crime.”

Promises of career advancement were an important reason for the fact that that many criminal investigation officers after 1933 acted not merely as opportunists and people taking orders, but worked quite consciously for the Nazi-regime and developed their own initiatives in keeping with the wishes of their superiors. There were indeed policemen who withdrew into niches of supposedly innocuous crime detection work;  some few even helped the persecuted. Typical however were the others: policemen who did not hesitate to use their time-honored methods of law enforcement searches, their finger-printing and photographic techniques and their card-catalogs of criminals, in the service of the Nazi-system, civil servants who put into action the guidelines and procedures of the Nazi war on crime with bureaucratic precision and decisiveness  . . .  (p.48)

From Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone, translated by Michael Hofmann: (Longtime police inspector Escherich is roughed up in his own office by an SS-man)

The inspector feels a vivid pain and the disgusting warm taste of blood in his mouth . . . he thinks, I must make my position clear. Of course, I’m ready to do anything. Door-to-door searches the length and breadth of Berlin. Spies in every building  . . .  I’ll do whatever you want, but you can’t just tell your stooges to punch me in the face, me, a long-serving detective and holder of the Iron Cross !      . . .

The Obergruppenführer watched the wretched inspector with sadistic pleasure. Then he turned away from Escherich with an angry “Bah, scum,” and asked Zott [Senior Police Investigator], “Do you require this man for briefing purposes, Herr Zott?”

It was an unwritten rule that all long-serving detectives transferred to the gestapo stayed together through thick and thin, just as the SS itself stuck together—often against the detectives themselves.  It would never have occurred to Escherich to betray a colleague to the SS, whatever his faults; rather he would have been at pains to hide his shortcomings from them. And now he had to look on as Zott, with a cursory glance in Escherich’s direction, coldly said, “This man? For a briefing? No thanks, Obergruppenführer.  I’d do a better briefing myself.”

“Take him away, boys,” screamed the Obergruppenführer .

I shall come back to Fallada’s police detective.  If you have not read the novel, and you read German, you will find a new edition now easily available, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Berlin, Aufbau, 2011). This edition is based on Fallada’s original typescript in the archives of the Aufbau, Staatsbibiliothek, Berlin, and differs in some small but interesting ways from the text we already know. Readers of English can turn to the very successful translated version of Michael Hofmann, Every Man Dies Alone (New York, Melville House Publishing, 2009), from which I have quoted above.  The U.K edition of this version is sold under the oddly changed title of Alone in Berlin.

More on all this very soon.

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Interview with Frank Tallis

Frank Tallis in the Freud Museum, London

Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist and an expert in obsessional states. He is the author of “A Death in Vienna,” “Vienna Blood,” “Fatal Lies” and “Vienna Secrets,” as well as seven non-fiction books on psychology and two previous novels, “Killing Time” and “Sensing Others.” He is the recipient of a writers’ award from the Arts Council England and of the New London Writers Award from the London Arts Board. A Death in Vienna was short-listed for the 2005 Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award. Tallis lives in London. (See also author’s website.)

I recently chose to review Frank Tallis’s 2010 novel, Vienna Twilight [Random House], because I regard him as a master of Viennese mysteries, in which I have a personal interest, and because his psycho-analytic detective novels, set in Vienna in the early nineteen hundreds, are possibly unique in the way they link the process of psychotherapy with criminal investigation; they are well-researched historical novels and at the same time a highly entertaining read. I am very grateful to Frank Tallis for agreeing to answer a few questions on his particular genre of crime fiction.

DJ.  So many things intrigue me about your “Liebermann papers” that I hardly know where to begin.  My own first interest in these novels was Vienna itself, so I will start there. The novels are rooted in the city of Vienna. You are, I take it, an Englishman. Did you start setting your novels in Vienna because you knew and liked the city and its language, or perhaps because as a student of psychology, you became interested in Freud, and for this reason delved into the life of the city?

FT.  The latter. I wanted to write a psychoanalytic detective series—which suggests Freud—and if you’re going to feature Freud, then the setting has to be Vienna. Fortunately, the city of Vienna and Freud’s time proved to be a gift for a novelist. Vienna in 1900 was an extremely exciting place. Revolutionary ideas were emerging in all areas of human endeavour: art, literature, philosophy, science, and most notably, psychiatry.

DJ.  The Max Liebermann novels are detective novels. You have called them “psychoanalytic detective novels,” and have suggested that they exploit parallels that exist between the process of psychotherapy and criminal investigation.  This is to me a source of endless fascination in your novels. Could you perhaps expand a bit on the idea here?

FT. Psychoanalysis and the detective novel are very similar. Clues are like symptoms, and the detective is like a psychoanalyst, attempting to find a root cause. It is very interesting that Freud himself recognised that there is a close relationship between psychoanalysis and police detection. He pointed this out in one of his lectures. It is also interesting that Freud was a great fan of detective fiction. One of his patients (known as The Wolfman) wrote a memoir and in it, he reveals that Freud was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Freud had a great deal of respect for this kind of writing. The Wolfman said that Freud valued it as much as the writings of Dostoevsky.

DJ.  Freud appears in the pages of your novels. I enjoy his conversations with Liebermann, and they are, as you demonstrate in your acknowledgements, very much based on the writings of Freud himself.  What would you say to those people who become irritated by what they see as too much text-book psychologizing, and not enough actual detection. I might suggest that they should perhaps read other novels, but you might have a better answer.

FT. If people don’t enjoy ‘psychological’ explanations of human behaviour, then they’re not going to enjoy my Liebermann books very much. I understand that; however, I tend to put a great deal of authentic psychology into my books for a simple reason. There are many crime books that are described as ‘psychological thrillers’—but they don’t have any psychology in them. I wanted my Liebermann books to be genuine ‘psychological thrillers,’ informed by psychological theories and ideas.

DJ.  In this blog, we have discussed “cozy mysteries.”  Your mysteries are anything but cozy.  In fact, you  incorporate into your narratives many  horrific details of crimes committed and of autopsies on the bodies of victims. And your novels are very successful. Can you make any comments on your own motives for including horrific details and on the motives of others who clearly have no problem reading them and perhaps even enjoy them?  This is a part of a larger kind of questioning that goes on in my own head about the motives that I have myself for reading murder mysteries of any kind.

FT.  Murder is horrific. Therefore—for me at least—it has to be described as something horrific. Horror is also emotionally engaging—something absolutely necessary if a reader is to suspend disbelief and enter an imaginary world. As for why we ‘enjoy’ reading horrific descriptions, I would suggest the following: children learn about ‘bad things’ in the world through listening to fairy stories – which can be pretty gruesome. This is healthy and children who have had exposure to fairy stories are better prepared for life’s adversities. As adults, we continue to come to terms with ‘bad things’ in much the same way. A narrative context makes the experience of horror ‘enjoyable’ – but I think something very healthy is going on. Fiction is a ‘safe place’ from which we can view the world and explore.

DJ.  I am very interested in the language of your novels.  In my opinion, not only do you, through your language alone, conjure up brilliantly the atmosphere of an earlier time, but, without Germanizing your English, you manage to make us believe that your characters are speaking German. Can you make any comments on how you did this?

FT.  I think it’s less about the detail of the writing and more about the context. I try to create an authentic Germanic atmosphere – so naturally, this creates an illusion of authenticity with respect to the speech of my characters.

UK Title of Vienna Secrets

DJ.  In some of your Vienna novels, you deal much more directly with the history and politics of Vienna than you do in Vienna Twilight. The crucial topic of anti-semitism, for example, is very much in the foreground in your Vienna Secrets, or “Darkness Rising,” as it is called in the UK.  Obviously it is not a good idea to overload a novel with lectures on history, but there are times when too much shorthand may be dangerous.  I had some problems, for example, with the way, towards the end of Vienna Twilight, you connected the theme of dying in an ecstasy of love (Liebestod) with the central theme/crime of killing in an ecstasy of love, and pointed forward to the terrible future of the Viennese with the line, “We Viennese, what will become of us?”  Perhaps you could say a word about the complicated role of historical hindsight in conjuring up a past era in a fictional setting.

FT.  Historical hindsight completely colours the reading of a historical novel. In a way, it would be pointless writing a historical novel if – as an author – you weren’t going to make use of it. Sometimes, hindsight does lead to crude and simple connections being made. However, I’m a novelist and not a historian. Subtle arguments and grey areas lack drama. A simple statement – albeit a crude one – seems to work better for me in a fictional context.

DJ.   A  practical question: I have read your comments elsewhere about  “interesting developments that might revolutionize publishing.”  E-books, you have suggested, have the potential to shift the power structure of publishing and there may perhaps be more opportunities for new writers in the future. I think readers of this blog, many of whom may be involved in self-publishing, would like to hear more on this topic from a well-published author, such as you certainly are.

FT. Children will always want to hear bed-time stories. People will always want to read books. Changing how books are made and distributed will not lead to the end of civilization as we know it. At present, British publishers and authors are extremely pessimistic about the future of the industry on account of E-readers. Well, maybe the industry will have to change—or  maybe the industry in its present form will disappear altogether—but books are here to stay. I am not unduly worried by technological change, because I firmly believe that basics are just the same. Story tellers make up stories—and people who want to read them will part with money for the pleasure.


DJ.   I am looking forward to reading Death and the Maiden, the next Liebermann book, as soon as it is readily available in the U.S.   I am among your many readers who never tire of the Rheinhardt/Liebermann detecting duo. I am not among those who look for character-development, and for, e.g., some fulfillment in the Liebermann/Lydgate relationship.  Is it too intrusive to ask whether you intend to go on with the series, more or less in its present form?  I certainly hope so!

FT.   I am worried that if I write many more Liebermann books they will become too repetitive—even for those who like familiar characters and situations. Therefore, I intend to give Max Liebermann a rest for a while and to write some ‘supernatural’ novels as F.R.Tallis (just so that readers know that these new books are something different). The first of these has been completed and is set in the medical world of late 19th century Paris. It will be published in the UK next year.

Many thanks to Frank Tallis for his remarks. I will miss Liebermann and Rheinhardt, but I certainly look forward to the new novels of F.R.Tallis.   The switch from Vienna to Paris is something I do not want to miss. And in the meantime, many of us in the U.S. still have Death and the Maiden to look forward to!


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Review of Frank Tallis’s “Vienna Twilight”

Viennese mysteries are close to my heart, and Tallis is surely the master of Viennese mystery. He writes historical, psychological thrillers—nothing cozy about him, despite the number of cakes that are consumed in the course of his novels.  They are set in the early years of twentieth century Vienna, where the young doctor in the developing field of psychiatry, Max Liebermann, helps his friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, investigate one strangely perverse crime after another.

Those readers who think there is too little serious detection and too much psychiatric speculation in these novels should note that Tallis, from the beginning, described these novels as “The Liebermann Papers,” thus making it clear what his own bent of detection was. He is openly interested, in the words of Freud, quoted recently on this blog, in discovering “the hidden psychic material.”

My reading of mysteries in the course of a lifetime has been serendipitous, and it was by chance that I came upon Frank Tallis in my local bookstore in Vienna where I saw a novel called: “Wiener Tod” [Viennese Death],  looked inside and saw that it was the translation of an English mystery novel, “Fatal Lies,” written by a practicing British clinical psychologist who lived in London.  I was immediately hooked. Living in Vienna myself at that time, I was writing a murder mystery set in present-day Vienna, and so I was immensely curious about what this Englishman would do and how he would do it.

Translated by Lotta Ruegger and Holger Wolandt, it read very naturally in German, transporting the reader through choice of words and manner of speech as well as through actual scene-setting into an older Vienna, and I wondered how Tallis had managed this in English. I have read five more since in Tallis’s own English, and he certainly pulls it off here too, not of course by writing any kind of Germanized (Austrianized) English, but by his own stately and somewhat mannered version of English prose, using words and expressions with a flavor of the past.

I am going to talk today about the latest Tallis novel to appear fully in the U.S (i.e. also on Kindle) under the nondescript title, Vienna Twilight [Random House]. The U.K. title of the same novel is Deadly Communion which gives a much stronger impression of the novel’s content and also says more about the way Tallis uses language.  I will quote here a small passage from the first chapter to give the flavor of this language: It is a description of a very nervous patient, Erstweiler:

Liebermann scrutinized his patient: early thirties; dark hair infiltrated with gray; a thin drawn face; tired bloodshot eyes; fingermarks on his spectacles.  Erstweiler’s brow was scored by three lines—short, long, and short. Their depth suggested indelibility. He had neglected his toilet and his chin was scabrous.  Erstweiler placed a palliative hand over his frantic heart.

Not in the least German, but not quite twenty-first century English either. Tallis largely sustains this style through his hundreds of pages, and it does not become wearisome, at all events, not to me.

Such genteel language serves well to describe the drawing-room scenes in which our two detectives make music, Rheinhardt with his rich baritone voice and the young piano-playing doctor, Liebermann.  It serves well to conjure up the turn-of-the-century houses of haute couture where loose and lovely “reform dresses” are beginning to “liberate the ladies from their whalebone corsets,” and to describe the décor of Moser and Hoffmann which Liebermann, a devotee of all things modern, “surveys in a state of blissful enchantment.” It serves well to bring to life Mahler’s conducting of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde in the opera house, “wielding his baton like a scalpel, like some great anatomist, revealing mysteries that had hitherto remained beyond the reach of human comprehension,” and to color conversations with Sigmund Freud where he sits at his own desk, opening his mouth to release “a cloud of smoke that tarried in the air before losing definition in the already opaque atmosphere.”

But do not imagine that this same genteel language in any way softens the impact of the horrible crimes that provide the story with its plot.  This is no cozy mystery in which a murder is quickly recounted and then fades in its literal detail out of the picture so that the reader can concentrate on the “fun” of the detection process.  On the contrary: One of the main components of Tallis’s detection process is the close analysis of the act of murder itself and this involves the detailed  examination of each corpse.

Night after night on our modern TV screens, watchers of crime-series see morgues and  autopsy tables float before the camera, but rarely does one come as close to the work of the pathologist as in Tallis’s Vienna where Professor Mathias, the elderly “gnome-like pathologist” goes about his macabre business before the sometimes averted eyes of the ever shockable Detective Inspector Rheinhardt,  his young consultant, Dr. Liebermann and the much cooler scientific gaze of Miss Amelia Lydgate, a very proper English lady,  a student of pathology at the University, a talented microscopist, an “expert on blood,” and an early feminist with “sororal sympathies.”

Stately language serves here not to mask the horrors of this process but to make them quite palpable, as when Mathias, burying his face in the underwear of the victim and inhaling deeply,  explains his actions to a mystified Rheinhardt:   “I am employing my nose—a somewhat underestimated organ—to detect . . .” he paused before adding, “masculine traces.”  In the next autopsy, Miss Lydgate, amazingly (amusingly?) follows suit in the examination of the corpse itself: “she did so with the serious determination of a convalescent eager to experience the invigorating tang of a coastal breeze.”  Rheinhardt has recourse to smoking a cigar, with the Professor’s permission.

Taken thus out of context, such descriptions may appear comic, and so, in a sense, they are. Tallis can make one smile during the most horrific descriptions of autopsy on the young women who are murdered in the course of the novel.  But horrific they remain.  The murderer in this novel is a psychopath who “murders in the midst of consensual love”—I am here betraying nothing that is not said on the cover of the paperback version of the novel, whose front cover is charmingly adorned with the murder instrument, a hat pin. We find this out early in the novel, and very early in the novel too a voice begins to speak to us, in italicized sections, unidentified, but after the first or at latest second section, we recognize this to be the murderer’s voice describing the origins and the development of his murderous proclivities, beginning with his early fascination with death. We are privy to these pages, but our detectives who do not read them until the end are not. And yet our young psycho-therapist Liebermann recognizes him by the fiftieth page as being a thanatophiliac, aroused and excited not by the dead, but by the act of dying.

Dr. Liebermann does his detecting largely by ratiocination with a good dose of dream analysis, driven by the new psychoanalytic theories of Dr. Sigmund Freud whom he reveres and with whom he has the privilege of discussing the cases he has on hand, his own patients as well as the cases of murder where he steps in to help his friend.  Rheinhardt sometimes finds the psychoanalytic musings of his young friend hard to take, but usually comes round to following his advice, while himself preferring to plod through the “terra firma of conventional detection,”  interviewing one by one, for example, the gentlemen whose names are found in the address book of one of the victims.

Each man has his own case to investigate—Liebermann, the psychiatric patient, Erstweiler, who sees his own doppelgänger, ­and Rheinhardt,  the serial murderer with his hat pin—and each helps the other to a solution. It so happens that the “Sophocles syndrome,” better known to us nowadays as the Oedipus Complex,  discussed by Liebermann with Freud, is at the heart of both—love of the mother, hatred of the father, unresolved in childhood, resulting in hideous crimes in adulthood.

I unashamedly enjoy the repeated, stylized sections where Liebermann and Rheinhardt perform Lieder, and then repair to the smoking room to discuss the songs, whose topics are atuned  of course to the cases they are investigating, here Schubert’s song, “To Death,” for example, and his “Doppelgänger.” A good second to the music-making for sheer reading pleasure are the cake-eating sessions. The “portly” Rheinhardt is a devotee of Viennese cakes of all kinds, and is constantly slipping into coffee houses to strengthen the body and soothe the soul, but the younger thinner­ Dr. Liebermann is also no slouch in the cake-eating area and can put away a dobostorte with the best of them.

Some of the most appealing (appalling?) exchanges take place with cake, thus Miss Lydgate, for whom Liebermann suffers agonies of unrequited love, sits with him in the Café Central: They discuss pathology, her great passion, and the possibility of her attending the autopsy of Professor Mathias in the dreadful case under investigation, while all the time eating the most delicious scheiterhaufen, which “exuded a potent fragrance of vanilla, cinnamon and rum. The thick slices of bread were sprinkled with raisins and icing sugar and were dripping with molten apple puree.” The relationship between the two reaches the closest it ever comes to a climax in their mutual enjoyment of this particular confection, when, having secured Liebermann’s support for her participation in the autopsies of Mathias, the young doctor takes another mouthful of scheiterhaufen, “his enjoyment of which found a corresponding quintessence in Amelia’s satisfied expression.”

Ah yes, there may be those who find precisely this kind of stylized episode is wearing a little thin in this, Tallis’s sixth Viennese novel, those who want to see development in the characters, in the relationships, but it is the delicate dance of the main characters, repeated again and again, that I unabashedly like. It is for this, conjured up in the illusory Viennese setting,  that I am prepared to swallow the horrors of the murders themselves, described as they are in excruciating detail.  I am even prepared in this novel to endure the fantasies of the serial killer, described in his own words, and culminating in one ghastly scene that takes place after he is in custody which I will certainly not describe here.  Well, at least, this is what I tell myself.  And yet, and yet, I wonder with horror, is there something in me and in others that draws us to such scenes too?

I am reminded of Rheinhardt’s own comments, which I quoted recently in this blog:

Rheinhardt looked troubled: “Sometimes I wonder whether some minds are so deranged that nothing useful can come out of their study: Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis has sold thousands of copies and because it is a scientific work, respectable gentlemen read it without scruple. Yet do they really read those cases—page after page of horror, sickness, and moral degeneracy—to improve their understanding of mental illness? I think not. They read the Psychopathia Sexualis because it is sensational and it arouses in them a dubious prurient excitement.

Oh dear.  Does one read the descriptions of horrors in Tallis’s novel because they “arouse a dubious prurient excitement”?

I really do not think so.  And yet, and yet … I was quite shocked just about a week ago to read on the Op Ed page of the New York Times an article by Jeff Lindsay on his own novels in which he writes in the first person about Dexter, a psychopathic serial killer. People love these novels, Lindsay tells us, and women have crushes on Dexter.  He has made Dexter, he tells us, a sympathetic character in order to bridge the gap between the psychopath and the “normal person.”  Tallis most certainly does not make his hat-pin-wielder a sympathetic person, though he does analyze in considerable detail what has made him into the psychopath he is.  His two very attractive detectives live in quite another emotional world from the murderers they hunt down. They feel, for example, nothing but disgust for one of the suspects, the artist Rainmayr, who paints obscene pictures of emaciated young girls for rich gentlemen who like that sort of thing.

Tallis does, however, draw identifying lines between his fictional Vienna and the Vienna of history, and sometimes these lines disturb me.  Almost at the end of this novel he explicitly associates the death wish with the “German soul.”  Liebermann is at the opera, eating chocolates with his colleague, Rheinhardt, and is finally overcome by the passion and power of (inevitably) Wagner’s Liebestod. In this moment of high emotion, he lines up the characters of the novel, the murderer, the psychiatric patient, with Wagner, Mahler—“they were all sick,”—yes, and he even had to include himself.  He wants at this moment to die, in love. Looking at Rheinhardt whose cheeks are streaked with tears, he thinks, “We Viennese, what will become of us?”

Inevitably, the reader, who knows only too well what became of the Viennese in the twentieth century, sees that familiar line leading mysteriously from the nineteenth century aesthetic/intellectual “death wish” straight to Hitler.  This is in itself a gigantic over-simplification, and I wish, though it makes a neat ending, that Tallis had not fallen into it. Happily, he adds a small down-to-earth coda or two, Rheinhardt moving matter-of-factly against Rainmayr, for one.  But this, along with the whole question of how deeply the novels really examine the contrast between the rich and the poor, is material for another essay. I hope you will add your comments, and perhaps, if we are lucky, we can have a conversation with Tallis himself.  He is still, in my book, the master of Viennese mystery.

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Interview with William Ryan

William Ryan, author of The Holy Thief, was born in London in 1965 and attended Trinity College, Dublin. He practiced briefly as a barrister before completing his master’s in creative writing at St. Andrews University. His work has appeared in the short story collection “Cool Britannia.” He lives in London with his wife. The Holy Thief is his first novel.

In this blog, I am interested in exploring the phenomenon of detective fiction, of crime novels, of so-called mysteries, and I chose Ryan’s novel, “The Holy Thief,” for my first review because it is a highly complicated and impressive example of the genre—a  “genre-stretcher,” if ever there was one. There is a certain stigma attached to the notion of genre-fiction, and yet genre-fiction is immensely popular with vast numbers of readers. I am grateful to Bill Ryan for giving me the chance in this interview to zero in on his own thoughts about his novel, about where he sees himself on the genre-spectrum, and whether this even matters to him.

DJ.  “The Holy Thief” is your first novel. It might be called a crime novel, a detective novel, a thriller based in a police investigation, a large panoramic historical novel. It is all of these things.  I wonder whether, when you decided to write a novel, you wanted to write a detective/crime/thriller, and chose to set it in Russia in the thirties, or whether, on the other hand, you wanted to write a big novel about Russia in the thirties, and came upon the idea of using the investigation of a particular crime to drive the plot and focus on particular characters?

WR. It was during the thirties that the initial optimism of the Russian Revolution ran into Stalin’s desire to completely control of every part of Soviet life and the result was enormous political oppression, famine and hardship for the peoples of the Soviet Union. It’s a fascinating and tragic period, all the more so because Hitler would invade a few years later, causing tens of millions more Russian deaths.

 The idea of writing a detective novel set against this background came around a little bit by accident, but once I’d had the idea it seemed to me it would  be a book that I’d find interesting to write and that I hoped people would find interesting to read. The more I thought about a detective investigating a murder at a time when the State was murdering millions, the more I thought what a strange job it must have been – particularly given that the Soviet State was also manipulating truth and justice for political ends on an industrial scale. Korolev, as a policeman trying to do the right thing, has a difficult path to follow – he’s aware of what’s going on around him but in order to survive he must adapt himself to this strange reality, not question it. He knows, as we do, that to voice even the mildest concern about the collective insanity that surrounds him is to risk almost certain arrest and worse, so, as a result, he decides to believe what the State requires him to believe and accept the strange truths it requires him to accept, while at the same time having parallel and private views that are quite different. I think that that’s how people cope with totalitarianism of that nature – by essentially having two personalities.

DJ.  Did you have a particular personal interest in Russia in the thirties it that drew you into investing so much time and talent into tackling such an immensely difficult topic? It is obvious from this novel that you have plenty of  talent in writing, in scene-setting, in plotting, in drawing characters, and could as well have written a major novel set, say, in London where you live.  Why then give yourself all these extra hurdles? And for your first novel?

WR. I’ve always been drawn to Russia and Russian literature but the starting point for The Holy Thief was probably reading Isaac Babel’s short stories set in the underworld of Odessa and During the Russian Civil War. At the time I was half-heartedly writing screenplays for a film production company that paid me largely with kind words and I thought that Babel’s very visual fiction might translate well onto the screen.

As it turned out, nothing came of the Babel idea but the research I undertook at the time did spark an interest and one that was fuelled by the fact that there was very little fiction set in the period. Eventually I started writing The Holy Thief but without a very clear idea as to how the novel would develop and Babel somehow ended up in the story, which made a nice circle.

I’m not sure writing a contemporary novel set in London would have been much easier to write – one of the good things about historical fiction is that the research often helps out the plot. For example, a scene at the end where soldiers are carrying an inflatable village in preparation for a march past the Kremlin comes from a photograph of a Red Square parade I came across. Once I saw the balloons, I thought about them being let go and this village floating above Moscow and so I had a nice ending to the book.

If readers of historical fiction are sometimes looking to escape from the world around them for a few hours, maybe the same is true of writers of historical fiction. And it’s certainly true that you can get away with a lot more stylistically when you’re writing in a different time period, which is something I enjoy as well. Writing The Holy Thief was hard work but it was also like stepping into a different world, even if it was a world I’m very glad I never experienced firsthand. I’m not sure I would have found so much to interest me in a period and place I was familiar with on a daily basis.

DJ,  I imagine that you speak Russian, and obviously you must read the language.  I know from my own experience that it is not easy to write an entire novel in English in which the characters are speaking English but ostensibly speaking another language.  The last thing one wants, of course, is to have them speaking some kind of phony English. Still one wants the reader to accept the authenticity of their nationality.  Did you find this a problem?  Your dialogue certainly flows, and we who know no Russian can accept it as “Russian.” Did you think much about this?  What did you do to make it possible? I am talking here more about the language than the content.

WR.  My “Russian” in The Holy Thief is pretty deliberately constructed. I think you have to accept with all historical fiction that 100% accurate dialogue would probably make novels unreadable, particularly historical fiction set in non-English speaking countries. If, for example, Hilary Mantel’s characters in Wolf Hall spoke the English of late Tudor Britain most readers probably wouldn’t get past the first chapter, and the same is probably true for The Holy Thief.

There’s basically a fine balancing act for writers and screenwriters, because the same problem exists in historical films, where we try to create a feeling of authenticity while writing modern, easily comprehensible English. Fortunately for me, most readers will be familiar with how people spoke in the thirties from old movies and I very much had all those great James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart movies at the back of my mind. As I’m Irish, my “Russian” definitely has an Irish twang to it but I use that to create a slightly foreign feel to the dialogue. On top of this I’ve spent the last five years collecting Russian sayings, which I slip in whenever I think I can get away with it. Finally, I tried to follow the Russian conventions when it came to using names. I know my “Russian” occasionally annoys real Russians but, even though The Holy Thief is now being translated into Russian, it wasn’t really written for a Russian audience and compromises had to be made.

DJ.  It will be fascinating to see how Russians react to the novel in Russian, to the characters as drawn and their thoughts as expressed.  Your main character, Korolev, is what some people would call a simple man, a man of the people, not an intellectual in the normal sense of the word, but quite definitely a thinker, and you make us privy to many of his thoughts.  How did you satisfy yourself that this is the way a Russian in his position would have thought and expressed his thought to himself?  Does this in fact matter if his thoughts interest us in themselves–his thoughts about God, about the Party, about his responsibilities to his country? These constituted the moral dilemma at the heart of the story and were to me the most absorbing aspect of the book. Did you find it necessary to seek evidence that a man like him might have thought in this way at that time?

WR. With a complex society that’s so different from the world that most modern readers of The Holy Thief live in, I had to try to create a reality that was sufficiently detailed that they could get a sense of the period, without overloading them with research. The best historical fiction is written as though addressed to a reader from the same time and place as the novel is set, and that means the writer doesn’t need to explain every single little detail. If the writer gets it right, the reader trusts him on that basis. To give an example, a modern author writing a novel set in Victorian London is probably trying to have the same relationship with the readers as a Victorian novelist might have. Modern readers can read Dickens and accept the world he’s reporting and modern writers try to recreate that.

That having been said, there’s very little completely reliable contemporary fiction from that period of Soviet Russia – anything that was published then was required to have a pro-Revolutionary message which means that you have to be very careful when reading it now. There were writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, Andrei Platonov and Lydia Chukovskaya writing novels “for the drawer” that eventually emerged after Stalin’s death, but these are relatively rare. Memoirs and fiction written later by survivors of the Terror such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Victor Shalomov, Evgenia Ginzburg and Nadezhda Mandelstam give insights into life at the time however and modern historians have produced some fascinating non-fictional studies of everyday life from diaries, memories and even NKVD investigations, so I definitely had material to work. All the same there’s often a large element of guesswork involved – after all, almost no-one was being honest at the time. 

Fortunately, I’m writing fiction so I’ve a bit of flexibility – most novels involve a writer taking facts and asking “what if”, which is pretty much what I did. I’m not sure how accurate historically a character Korolev is, because someone in his role would probably have been more involved with political crimes then he is in the books. In order for The Holy Thief to work however it was essential that he’s a simple detective looking for justice in a State that had a very skewed view of that concept.

DJ.  There are real historical characters in the novel alongside the fictional characters, notable among them Isaac Babel. I had some problems with this, but I’m not sure why.  Babel himself, as we know, was himself tortured and executed just a few short years after 1936, the year of your novel.  Why does this make one somewhat uneasy at finding him here in the pages of a piece of fiction?  It would be interesting to know why you chose to put real people into your fictional plot. It certainly works—your Babel is a very lively figure in the novel.  Was your purpose in introducing him to add authenticity to the fiction? Or what?

WR. Babel is the reason I started researching the period in the first place so that’s why he’s in there. I do understand that for some people it’s a little difficult to have a such a tragic figure in the book and I share some of their concerns. Ginzburg, the poet who appears in The Holy Thief is based very closely on the poet Osip Mandelstam who also died in the Gulag system. Likewise the film director Savchenko in my second novel, The Bloody Meadow, is based on Sergei Eisenstein. In both cases I thought it better to change the names and cover my tracks a little.  With Babel, I felt more relaxed about him appearing and I’m not entirely sure why.

DJ.  The only thing that made it difficult for me to read the novel was the detailed description of the torturing of certain human beings.  I do not doubt that this a realistic part of such a story as you tell here. Plenty of torturing went on.  It must surely be difficult for many people to read, however, and I somehow imagine that it must have been difficult for you to write.  Perhaps you could comment on your incorporation of such passages into your novel, one very prominently on the first pages that the reader encounters on opening the book. Did you think about how readers might react? Or did you divorce yourself from such considerations?

WR.  Because it was a debut novel I wanted to have a very strong first chapter. I knew the opening scene was pretty graphic – it’s actually been toned down in the published novel – but I wanted to grab the attention of agents and publishers, even if it meant some of them wouldn’t like it at all.

Writing it was a pretty technical job in many ways, because it had to be jarring and at the same time show the victim’s quiet courage. Because it was such an important part of the book, it was rewritten a great deal and after the first ten rewrites or so, I’m not sure I was too aware of the violence when I was actually writing it. Researching it was more difficult I would say, as torture is deeply, deeply unpleasant but apparently ordinary people seem to do it for various countries around the world, even today, including some not too far from home. That was something I wanted to make clear as well – that sometimes the torturer is a victim as well. 

All in all, I don’t regret the violent scenes In The Holy Thief but I’m probably not going to write anything that graphic again. Aside from anything else, extreme violence can overwhelm a book and I think there’s an element of that with The Holy Thief. Still, torture and violent death were very much part of the reality of that period of history in the Soviet Union and perhaps it’s necessary to remind people of that – sometimes the sheer scale of the Great Terror can obscure the way in which it affected individuals.

DJ.  Yes, I certainly take this last point.  I recently quoted Hans Fallada who wrote along these lines in the Foreword to his 1946 novel set in the Nazi period  which he lived through himself.

But back finally to the genre question: You are about to publish a second novel about Korolev, The Bloody Meadow.  Do you sometimes think that the crime-investigation plot can be a straitjacket?  Did you sometimes wish in your second novel that you could escape certain necessities that such a plot brings with it, and write more freely without it?

WR.  I think a crime novel provides an interesting basis for an investigation into the Soviet world, particularly for the tragic period the Korolev novels are set in. I really dislike the concept of “genre” though, it seems to place literary novels on a  higher level whereas I think many of the best novels being written at the moment are so-called genre novels. At the end of the day, a novel often stands or falls on its ability to hold the attention of the reader – obviously there’s a little more to it but it’s still a good starting point for any novelist. I like that genre novelists are focused on entertaining their readers and having a good, solid plot.

Many thanks to William Ryan for his detailed response and illustrations.  I hope the readers of this blog will have some responses for him. His second  Korolev novel, The  Bloody  Meadow, is scheduled to appear in September of this year. I am looking forward to it with great interest.

Postscript,  July 1: The Holy Thief has just been shortlisted for the 2011, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of  the Year Award, one of the most prestigious crime-writing prizes in the U.K.

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Story Behind The Mousetrap

Behind every murder mystery, like it or not, there is a murder, often fictional, sometimes real.  After reading my review of the Berlin Kriminaltheater performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” Jessica Best, of CardiffRead, reporter for the South Wales Argus, a newspaper in my home country,  sent me an article she wrote recently about the actual murder behind Christie’s well-known play.  This is not the murder that is shown on stage, but one that occurred in 1944 and gave Christie the idea for the plot.  Jessica Best has given me permission to post her article here. Background to the play, foregrounded here is a seventy-five-year-old man who remembers the reality, and has written a book about it, Someone to love us.  As Jessica tells us, he saw the play for the first time last year.

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Newport man tells his tragic story behind Agatha Christie classic

8:30am Thursday 14th October 2010

By Jessica Best

A NEWPORT man whose shocking mistreatment at the hands of his foster parents inspired West End play “The Mousetrap” has published his remarkable life story at the age of 75.

Terence O’Neill was born in Pill in 1934, but taken into local authority care when he was four-years-old along with his older brother Dennis.

In July 1944 the two boys were sent to live with Esther and Reginald Gough in Shropshire, where they were starved and given daily beatings.

Within six months of the brothersí arrival, 12-year-old Dennis was dead – killed after a savage beating from Mr Gough.

The Goughs went on trial in February 1945, and 10-year-old Terence gave evidence.

Reginald Gough was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for six years, while Esther Gough was found guilty of neglect and imprisoned for six months.

The trial shocked the nation, and Agatha Christie wrote a radio play called “Three Blind Mice” based on the case. This was eventually developed into The Mousetrap – the longest running play in theatre.

But despite his story being told on stage for 58 years, Mr O’Neill has now written his own life story.

“Someone to Love Us” was published by HarperCollins earlier this year, and has already sold 30,000 copies.

Mr O’Neill, now a great grandfather who lives in Bettws, said it had taken 18 years to write the book about memories which are still painful for him.

He said: “It’s been very upsetting, but I thought it was a story my children should know. When I had the book in my hands for the first time I couldn’t believe it, and the reception has been fantastic.”

He added that so many readers have come to visit Dennis’ grave in St Woolos cemetery since the release of the book the family have now set up a book of remembrance there in his honour.

Mr O’Neill also went to see The Mousetrap for the first time last month, after only learning of his connection to the play four years ago when his nephew was studying the Goughs’ case as part of a social care course.

He said: “It was a fantastic play. I was quite choked.”


Copyright South Wales Argus.  Hyperlink

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