I Was Jack Mortimer


JackMortimerA strange little number this time round, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Third Man’, by an Austrian author I had never heard of before. Pushkin Vertigo, the new imprint from Pushkin Press, seems to specialise in little-known, unusual mystery books. Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. by Ignat Avsey) is no exception. Published in 1933, it’s a book balancing between faded past and uncertain future, aristocratic and working-class Vienna.

There are clear parallels with German Expressionist films – Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ comes to mind – and early American gangster films, with ambiguous and unreliable main protagonists, cold femmes fatales and lack of clarity about who – if anyone – is on the side of the good and the just. Dashiel Hammett’s sparse, hard-boiled style must have been an influence on Lernet-Holenia. It sounds like his work is derivative, but it has its very own quirky originality and goes in unexpected directions.

Ferdinand Sponer is a thirty-year old taxi driver with upwardly mobile aspirations. Having read the cover blurb, I was expecting a dead body in his cab from the word go, rather than a longish introduction in which he moons around after one of his passengers, a beautiful and haughty young lady of aristocratic descent. His behaviour might best be described as stalking, despite the fact that he has a long-suffering girlfriend, Marie, who takes good care of him (one of the typical Viennese ‘süßes Mädl’, a good-natured working-class girl more sexually available than her bourgeois counterpart, who frequently crops up in art and literature as an object to be used and discarded). So by no means a likeable person. Nor does author give us a great deal of insight into the character’s psyche: we can only deduce Ferdinand’s personality and thoughts from his actions, which are described in minute detail, with almost forensic precision and coldness. Here’s how he reacts, for instance, when he discovers the dead body (when it finally does appear):

He edged backwards out of the cab, straightened up and struck his head hard against the top of the door frame. His cap fell forward over his face. He instinctively pushed it back with his forearm instead of with his blood-stained gloved hand. He turned around… He took a couple of slow steps, then three or four very quick ones. He pulled off his blood-stained gloves and threw them into the car. Closing his eyes momentarily, he slammed the rear door shut, then got in his seat, turned off the interior light and, closing his own door with his left hand, swung the car to the right and headed towards the policeman operating the traffic signals at the centre of the crossroads.

Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com
Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com

But, needless to say, he does not quite succeed in alerting the police. Instead, he gets sucked ever deeper into a dangerous game of concealing the body and impersonating the dead man. This isn’t a conventional detective story, though, for it’s not really about finding a killer or even about discovering how the man in the cab got shot without the driver noticing. It’s more of a mad race through the streets of Vienna by night, including a scene of confusion and paranoia in the hotel room, plus a longish, very cinematographic chase scene with Marie as the heroine. So a thriller with a mad caper thrown in for good measure, and a personal journey of awakening for the main protagonist. Not quite a noirish ending either.

I’m not quite sure what to think of it. I rather admire the ‘behaviourist’ style, although it does get more interiorised as Sponer gets more panicky. I would have liked perhaps something more obviously noir and downbeat, but of course I enjoyed the descriptions of driving around a grey, Novemberish Vienna. I also liked the sly digs at a city in which everyone is slightly dishonest and snobbish. All in all, this is an atmospheric recreation of Vienna between the two World Wars.


21 thoughts on “I Was Jack Mortimer”

  1. This is one that’s making its way to the top of my pile for this month so I’ve tried not to read too much of your review! I *did* start it once and wasn’t too sure what I thought of it – but I’m willing to give it another try!

  2. It certainly does sound unusual, Marina Sofia. And I do appreciate an author who innovates rather than imitates. It sounds as though this is a really interesting look at Vienna, too. Hmm….interesting, despite the fact that I don’t usually prefer that kind of distant, aloof storytelling. I can definitely imagine needing time to decide what to make of this.

  3. Like yourself. I’d have said I’d never heard of Alexander Lernet-Holenia, but as I read your review I realized that I knew the story. The book has been filmed several times; the version I’ve seen is Abenteuer in Wien (1952; vt Adventures in Vienna); there was an Eng-lang version shot in parallel, Stolen Identity (1953). I see from IMDB it was also filmed in 1935 and 1961, with maybe other versions — I haven’t the time to check right now.

    Mildly surprising, in this context, that the book hasn’t been translated before. I must look out for it. Many thanks!

    1. In fact, since I didn’t have space to give the English-language version more than a passing reference in my noir encyclopedia, you’ve inspired me to dig the movie out for a Noirish post!

        1. I spent a while looking around online (YouTube, Jimbo Berkey, Archive, etc.) to see if there was a copy you might be able to watch, but I had no success. I think mine came from TCM or some similar TV airing.

          It’s a pretty damn’ fine movie, by the way. I’d not quite put it up alongside Blues in the Night as a lost noir classic, but it’s not too far behind — certainly it’s lots better than some movies that are regarded as noir standards.

  4. Intriguing. My husband went to the University of Vienna and we often spend time in that beautiful city. I think I will give this to him to read first and, from your review, I think he will quite enjoy it. Thanks!

  5. I really loved this one when I read the Pushkin Collection edition a couple of years ago, and your review brings it rushing right back. Great commentary on the similarities with German Expressionist films (Fritz Lang’s ‘M’- yes!) and Dashiell Hammett’s novels. As you say, though, this little novel has a quirky style all of its own.

  6. Like Jacqui, I read this when Pushkin first published it. It does have a slightly unusual style, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Pushkin have just published another book by the same author.

  7. I read this last year during German Literature Month. I found it a fascinating work. Your very well done post helped bring it back to me.

  8. I haven’t read the author yet but took pictures of a commemorative plaque on the house he lived in in Vienna. Too bad it wasn’t entirely satisfying.

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