I Was Jack Mortimer

german-2015

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.

 

Advertisements

Reading Plans for the Rest of 2015

2015 is not over yet, so there’s still time to take a little control of my reading. It’s been a reasonably good year, and I’ve felt far less of a pressure to be ‘up-to-date’ with my reading and reviewing than in previous years. [Where did that come from? I think social media may have played a part, as I never used to care about the latest launches before.]

Anyway, I have managed to stick by and large to my resolution to be less ‘greedy’ and to allow myself to be guided by my own tastes and nothing else. I’ve surpassed my target of 120 books on Goodreads (136 and counting, so likely to hit 150 by the end of the year) and only a small number of those have been ‘unsolicited’ books for reviewing purposes. [Fortunately, I’ve learnt to turn down books I don’t fancy, so I seldom feel horribly frustrated at having to come up with something about a book I was indifferent about.]

So I’ve had fun and broadened my horizons. But… you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?… I still struggle with a toppling TBR pile (both physical and electronic). Something needs to be done about it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of months left to make a small dent in my TBR skyscraper.

GermanLitNovember will be German Lit Month, an initiative hosted by Caroline and Lizzy (now in its 5th year, if I’m not mistaken). I plan to read 1 Swiss, 2 Austrian and 3 German books, all with a noirish feel.

  1. First up, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s follow-up Bärlach novel Der Verdacht (Suspicion but a.k.a. The Quarry in English). I loved The Judge and His Hangman: these are philosophical crime novels, although Dürrenmatt himself thought of them as potboilers.
  2. A new name to me from Pushkin Vertigo. Alexander Lernet-Holenia: I Was Jack Mortimer (transl.  Ignat Avsey), first published in 1933.
  3. Stefan Zweig. I have a copy of Meisternovellen (collected novellas), but I haven’t quite decided which ones I will read – or if I can read all of them. This volume includes the Chess novella, 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Burning Secret, Confusion of Feelings, so pretty much all of the shorter pieces for which he is famous.
  4. The final three are all crime fiction: Jakob Arjouni’s 3rd Kayankaya novel Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder) and 2 volumes of the Es geschah in Berlin (It happened in Berlin) series 1934 and 1938. No thanks to Mrs. Peabody for making me buy the last two!

December will be my Netgalley catch-up month, as I now have 35 titles on my bookshelf. I do want to read them all, so it’s not like my eyes were larger than my tummy. Here are the ones that attract me at the moment (although this may change by December): Yasmina Khadra’s The Dictator’s Last Night; Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies; Saul Black: The Killing Lessons; S.K. Tremayne: The Ice Twins; Sarah Jasmon: The Summer of Secrets and something completely out of my comfort zone, Massimo Marino’s Daimones Trilogy (Book 1). I know Massimo as a fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group – he is a former high energy physicist who has turned to writing ‘science fiction with heart and soul’.