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.

 

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Quick-Fire Reviews for Holiday Period

It’s been a long time since I last posted any reviews, although my reading has continued unashamedly. So I have some wonderful books to share with you. I will post more in-depth reviews of Tove Jansson’s memoirs and Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, because I am comparing and contrasting two or more books in each case, but here are some quick reviews of the books I have enjoyed during the final days of 2014 and the first few days of 2015.

IslandersPascal Garnier: The Islanders

The ultimate anti-feel-good Christmas story. Olivier reluctantly returns to his home town of Versailles on a frozen December day to prepare for his mother’s funeral. Iced in, unable to leave, he bumps into his childhood sweetheart Jeanne and gets invited to Christmas dinner at her house, where she lives with her malicious blind brother, Rodolphe. Is it the spirit of generosity which makes Rodolphe invite a homeless man to take part in their celebrations, or something more sinister? And just what terrible secret binds Olivier and Jeanne? What I want to know is: how does Garnier manage to deliver, again and again, in such succinct formats, a devastatingly accurate description of people on the margins of society and on the borderline of alcoholism and madness? Once again, it starts innocently enough: a funeral, a claustrophobic and snobbish little town, strained family relationships… and it all ends in confusion and mayhem.

BlueNightsJoan Didion: Blue Nights

The same year that Didion lost her husband, she also lost her daughter after a prolonged battle with illness, coma and hospitals. Another moving book about loss, grief, the guilt of parenthood, the fears of being a parent, and the frailty of human life in general. I haven’t read a better description of the flaws and limitations of the medical system, of the humiliations of growing older, of the doubts, challenges and joys of parenting – elegiac rather than angry, thoughtful rather than didactic. A meditation on the reliability of memory, on multiple interpretations of facts and on what it means to love and be loved.

Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

Perhaps more disconnected and woolly than the Year of Magical Thinking book, more jumping around with seemingly disparate pieces of information, but it still has that vulnerability and depth which made the other book so memorable.

ShallowWatersRebecca Bradley: Shallow Waters

I’m always a little nervous when I read books by friends – what if I don’t like it? Will it destroy our friendship? Dare I be honest? But, luckily, there was no need to worry about that with this book! An in-depth review is forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover, but for now let me just say that this is a solid police procedural, with an engaging female lead who is not profoundly damaged, drunk or unbearably lonely (what a relief!). The author skilfully hints at quite a back story there, but doesn’t let that overwhelm the investigation. The story revolves around kidnapping, abuse and murder of young girls, so it becomes almost unbearably grim in places, and we see just how much this affects each individual member of the police team too.

The very atmospheric cover, perfect for the genre and fitting so well with the story, has won a gold star from the very demanding Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer fame.

PiercedHeartLynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart

Lynn Shepherd has created a great niche for herself with novels which may loosely classified as ‘historical crime fiction’, in which she plays with re-imaginings of real historical people and events, full of literary allusions. Her Victorian investigator Charles Maddox was previously involved with the family of the poet Shelley, and with the ambiguous justice system of the time (in a retelling of ‘Bleak House). This time it’s an interesting twist on the original Dracula – the vampire sceptic’s book about vampires, perhaps. Close enough to the original (right down to the names) to please fans of Bram Stoker’s book, but full of healthy human rationality and investigations. If you are sick and tired of YA literature’s obsession with vampires – or if you have family in Transylvania and are tired of factual inaccuracies about the historical precedent of Dracula – this is the book which combines spine-tingling suspense with a good dose of satire about superstitions. Some reviewers have found the end of the book implausible or over-the-top, but that is precisely the point, as far as I can see.

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Raven?

7e42f475d4f202bdd68eac647fceabf5_bigger (1)After a little business-related break, here is another installment in my series of interviews with crime fiction afficionados. Raven is the mysterious nom de plume of one of my favourite book reviewers, whose opinions have an uncanny tendency to match with mine. In real life (as if books were not real life?!), Raven is a bookseller as well as an avid reader and reviewer. And I am delighted to say that we are also comrades-in-arms as contributors to the Crime Fiction Lover website.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Thanks to the encouragement of my mum, a keen reader, who started me reading at a very early age, I have always been a regular library user, and surrounded by books. I remember dipping into mum’s fiction collection so started on Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Eric Ambler and possibly some others that weren’t entirely suitable for my age at that time! However, the real turning point for me in terms of my passion for crime fiction came with the early issuing of my adult library ticket, and discovering the as yet unexplored delights of what seemed to me a never ending wall of crime books in our local branch. Consequently, I remember some of my first discoveries including Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond, and my crime reading career was forged in earnest from that point on.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

Thanks to my early reading experiences, I have a long-held affection for American crime fiction, not so much the more mainstream ‘mass-produced’ authors, but those that practice the noble art of sparsity and social awareness underscored with a nod to the dark side. So currently, I would cite authors such as George Pelecanos, Ryan David Jahn, Dennis Lehane, Frank Bill and Ace Atkins as among my more recent favourites. Likewise, I am an ardent fan of Scottish and Irish crime fiction, despite being neither, as this feeling of the darker side of the human psyche seems more in evidence in the police procedurals of this sub-genre. Also, with what I call ‘the Larsson effect’, I am positively lapping up the increasing availability of European crime fiction in translation, thanks to publishers such as Quercus, Europa Editions and Gallic Books et al, producing crime fiction that really ticks the boxes for me. Not one for cosy crime I must admit!

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex and Irene, I found astounding in both their execution, and different take on the crime fiction genre. With my natural propensity to veer towards the darker side of the human psyche, and the positively masochistic preference for the probing psychological read, he has been a real discovery.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

No quibbling on this one. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would be firmly ensconced in my washed up, hopefully waterproof, trunk. Also one of my numerous boxes of books that I would try to rescue in a fire!

Huge_pile_of_booksWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

In the very lucky position of being an established crime reviewer and a bookseller, every day unveils a new reading treat, and a new or not so new author to read. Therefore, every new arrival on my crime radar is a treat in store and I particularly relish the discovery of a cracking new debut author. I look forward to reading them all, although I’m increasingly edgy about the new George Pelecanos collection not appearing until next year…

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

With my brilliant ‘day-job’ as a bookseller, I am also a keen fiction reader, so actually spend an equal amount of my time recommending my fiction finds. I am an avid reader of classic and contemporary American fiction, less mainstream British fiction, Australian fiction, as well as European fiction in translation, and have a store of favourites from Elliot Perlman, Andrey Kurkov, Jim Crace, Magnus Mills, Gregory David Roberts, Ron Rash, Tim Winton and oh- countless others. When time allows I also enjoy an eclectic range of non-fiction titles, as I suddenly develop a strange interest in something, and am driven to read extensively about it. Reading is my passion and I love sharing this enthusiasm with anyone kind enough to listen!

Thank you, Raven, and that explains why your reviews speak to me so much – since you mention so many of my favourites: George Pelecanos, Ed McBain, Pierre Lemaitre… Looks like the dark side of crime fiction appeals to both of us. And of course we are all envious of your day job!

For previous revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.