Real Viennese Crime Fiction
This is not really a book review, more of a declaration of love for its setting, and it fits into my Global Reading Challenge, the meme launched by the incomparable Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise.
Ah, Vienna! City of my heart – no matter how many places I live in, this is the place that feels closest to home, perhaps because I spent most of my childhood there. Yet it’s not just gold-tinged nostalgia. I will forever be regarded as an outsider there: no matter how fond how I am of Grinzing and the wooded hills extending beyond it, no matter how familiar I am with every element of the Viennese cuisine, no matter how easily I slip into the lazy lengthened vowels of the Viennese accent.
Yet still I thrill to the slightest mention of the city, and I cannot resist any novel that is set there. Yet somehow, until recently, crime fiction set in Vienna seems to have been written largely by foreign authors. The obvious one to mention is Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’. Both the book and the film are excellent at conveying the disquieting atmosphere of a city on the very border of the Cold War. Frank Tallis has series of novels featuring a psychonalytical detective in early 20th century Vienna, but I found it a bit too rich, like a Sachertorte. J. Sydney Jones also addresses the same period in Austrian history, introducing real-life literary celebrities, musicians and artists such as Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler with his Viennese Mysteries series.
However, in recent years, there has been a surge of native crime writers telling us of their love/hate relationship with their capital city. [Because you aren’t a real Viennese until you learn to complain about the city and its inhabitants.] Some of them rather obviously cater for the tourist market, much like the Mozartkugeln confectionery. Some of them are intended for the domestic market (which includes Germany and Switzerland, of course). None of them have been translated into English yet, as far as I am aware, but I will keep my eyes open for Wolf Haas (many of his books have been filmed for Austrian TV), Edith Kneifl’s evocations of the Prater fun fair, Andreas Pittler’s novels set in the tumultuous 1930s, Marcus Rafaelsberger who changed his name to Marc Elsberg and now lives in Hamburg, and Alfred Komarek’s melancholy detective Polt, who lives just outside Vienna amidst beautiful vineyards.
But every now and then you find the genuine thing: a book that conveys all of the contradictory atmosphere of this city, everything that charms and frustrates you about it. This author is Stefan Slupetzky and his crime series is about Poldi Wallisch, a.k.a the Lemming for his tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviour.
The book I read, ‘Lemmings Zorn’ (Lemming’s Rage) is the fourth in the series, but I don’t think this is a series you need to read in chronological order. Not surprisingly, it’s about rage and frustration, about average people trying to make a life for themselves in the city of endless construction sites, unapproachable neighbours and high noise levels. It is also about powerlessness and revenge, about shame and shamelessness.
It starts out as a humorous family saga. It’s a lovely May Day holiday and the streets of Vienna are empty, save for Lemming and his heavily pregnant life partner, Klara. Suddenly, Klara’s waters break, the ambulance fails to arrive and panic sets in. Until the couple are saved by a stranger, Angela, who helps them with the birth, names the baby and becomes a family friend. A few months later, however, on Christmas Eve, Lemming has to leave the baby with Angela for a few hours. When he goes to pick up his son, he makes a gruesome discovery which changes their lives forever.
Macabre humour mixed with slapstick, surrealist dream sequences, philosophical asides and tongue-in-cheek observations, this is a crime novel unlike any other you have read. I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud throughout. Whether it would appeal to anyone who doesn’t know Vienna or the black humour of its inhabitants, we won’t know until it’s been translated into English. I do hope someone hurries up and does just that!
- Set-jetting in Vienna (brandsandfilms.com)
- Viennese Weekend (memoirsofawayfarer.wordpress.com)
- In Love With Vienna: “Vienna Is Weird, But I Like It” – Salvatore Viviano (thenewcontemporary.com)