Suspense novels set in pre-War Europe paint a grim picture
Thrillers that take place in Europe before the war can’t get around the fact that, even as the mystery finds its solution, the future is not bright. Three new suspense novels − based in Germany, Austria and Hungary, deal with this dilemma in different ways.
Children of Wrath by Paul Grossman. St. Martin’s, 336 pages, $26
The Silence by J. Sydney Jones. Severn House, 240 pages, $28.95
Budapest Noir by Vilmos Kondor (translated from Hungarian
by Paul Olchvary). HarperCollins, 304 pages, $15 (paperback)
Crime fiction and thrillers are often about a group of people in peril. More often than not that group is a family; writers and publishers assume the reader can easily relate to the chill of having immediate loved ones at risk, and that they will root for the father (for it typically is he), who must rescue the wife and kids. Harlan Coben, for one, has sold millions of copies of books ingeniously recasting this theme over and over. But what if a writer can place a whole people in peril? That’d certainly raise the stakes.
In the case of Europe’s Jews, such a technique is problematic for the crime writer, because we all know things didn’t work out too well for them in reality. It’s possible to completely rewrite that history, but historical crime fictioneers tend to steer clear of such rampant revisionism. In general the genre allows a recasting of history only on a small scale. Personal stories involving a single (usually entirely fictional) character may touch upon real-life events and figures, providing context for them, but not aiming to change their direction or even necessarily to explain them. A mystery may be presented and solved, but 6 million Jews will still go their deaths.
The complete rewriting of history is a science fiction subgenre in which the writer presents a major “what if” (for example, Harry Turtledove’s award-winning “The Guns of the South,” where time-traveling Afrikaners supply Lee’s troops with AK-47s to defeat the Yankees) that sometimes involves dramatic changes in subsequent politics, but can also incur the arrival of space aliens and zombies. It’s sci-fi, after all. In top crime fiction, the closest to a rewrite of major events has been James Ellroy’s excellent “Underworld USA” trilogy. Ellroy provides an alternative history, a backstory to the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., that overthrows the conventional explanations with a conspiracy between rogue CIA agents, “Gay Edgar Hoover,” Mafiosi with casino interests in Cuba, drug runners and plain weirdos. But, true to the genre, JFK and MLK end up dead all the same.
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The genre works this way because crime fiction fans are sometimes the most earthbound of readers. They’re willing to suspend disbelief to the extent that they accept the same amateur sleuth may become involved in one murder case after another. Yet their obsession with procedural detail and the accurate portrayal of the passage of time during an investigation is such that they will write to authors to complain that they never found out what the detective was doing on Thursday morning and, thus, felt cheated of the experience of a true investigation.
All set in Central Europe, each of the three novels reviewed here stays true to that detailed representation of a brief period of time. They also represent different mini-traditions within the crime genre and intersect with true history at vastly different points.
The most head-on confrontation with the Holocaust comes in Paul Grossman’s “Children of Wrath.” It’s the second of his novels centered around Willi Kraus, a Berlin police detective, and this one is set in 1929. Kraus is Jewish and, though a talented investigator, he faces constant anti-Semitism at work. When the bones of a number of children are uncovered bound in thongs made of human muscle, Kraus catches the case. Then suddenly he’s reassigned by his boss, who tells him to keep his “big nose out of it” and gives the case to another detective with ties to the nascent Nazi movement and a penchant for the public eye. Kraus is forced to investigate the apparently pedestrian distribution of tainted sausages, instead.
Grossman efficiently exploits many of the standard plot techniques of the crime fiction form. The sausage case becomes suddenly dangerous when a health inspector is found dead. It’s the kind of moment crime writers use to bring on a sharp intake of breath, and it works. It also links the sausage case with the bag of children’s bones, an investigation that is expanding as more street kids disappear and more bones turn up. The mysterious killer becomes known as the “Kinderfresser,” and the Nazi detective makes no headway in tracking him down, despite some clues tossed his way by Kraus.
Needless to say, it is Kraus who solves the case and, with Grossman adopting a tone halfway between Philip Kerr’s wisecracking “Berlin Noir” narrative style and pulp melodrama, we ought not to be surprised when the exposed bad guy calls out: “Damn you, Kraus!” After all, Kraus has already noted of the fellow’s wicked scheme: “How fiendishly brilliant.”
There are indeed more than a few moments in which one wishes Grossman, a teacher of writing at Hunter College in New York, had been as ruthless with his text as the Kinderfresser is with small boys. Take this example
“ ... She practically ran amok.”
“Yeah. An example, Helga...”
It’s a rule of writing that there’s a need for a clarifying rewrite when a character says, “What do you mean?” After all, the reader’s probably wondering the same thing. But when one character says “What do you mean?” and the other responds, “What do you mean?” things have clearly gone a bit too far.
An uncle’s poisoning
There’s a powerful trend in crime fiction in recent years for mysteries to revolve around truly gruesome crimes. Gone are the days of Miss Marple investigating the poisoning of an irascible uncle in a British seaside hotel. Cannibals and pedophiles routinely dismember and devour with as much gusto as readers pull them off the shelves. Best-selling writers like Greg Iles never let an opportunity go by for a toddler to be probed with a power tool. It seems to me that this is because of the lack of shame and shock in modern Western society: Writers are forced to depict more awful acts to persuade us that the stakes are high enough to keep us reading to the end. In Agatha Christie’s day, a man might commit murder to keep an adulterous affair secret. In our confessional times, such admissions across a dinner party table would barely halt the flow of conversation. But if a guest told you your chicken a l’orange tasted almost as good as the 8-year-old girl he fried up for lunch, that might dampen your appetite and make you think more deeply about the guy.
“Children of Wrath” fits this gruesome bill. The obscene goriness of the crimes at the novel’s heart is probably justified by the parallels Grossman is drawing with the crimes of the Nazis. In the book, innocents are abused, forced into slave labor, and murdered. Some of the first clues come in the form of human skin tanned and turned into lamp shades. There’s even a Mengele-like figure. No doubt many readers will relish such comparisons, just as others will find they downplay the enormity of Hitler’s project.
Nothing but a truly horrible fictional crime could stand comparison with the historical portrayal of Nazism in the novel. However, the Holocaust remains uniquely evil, even alongside the crimes of the Kinderfresser. Whatever nastiness Grossman ascribes to his bad guys, it’s inevitable that it’ll look like the work of a schoolyard bully compared to the real tortures of Auschwitz.
Indeed, building an environment where everyone is either an anti-Semite or a fully paid-up Nazi means a writer has to work harder to delineate the real villains of the novel from others who are simply proponents of wicked ideas.
Fin de siecle Vienna
In J. Sydney Jones’ marvelous novel “The Silence,” the real mayor of Vienna at the onset of the 20th century, Karl Lueger, is placed at the heart of a conspiracy to raise big money from the sale of the Vienna Woods and at the same time to gain political capital by blaming Jewish property developers for the destruction of the city’s beloved green belt. I won’t be a spoiler by telling you whether Lueger turns out to be a real bad guy or just a proponent of nasty ideas, but the fact that he could be either proves how difficult such a situation might be for many writers.
It’s a measure of Jones’ skill as a writer that, while his hero is a lawyer-turned-investigator of Jewish origin, the novel’s Jews are not really better or worse than the society around them. They aren’t portrayed as poor saintly victims. They’re simply part of Jones’ Vienna, as they were part of historical Vienna. Though a Jewish developer falls unwittingly for Mayor Lueger’s murderous, corrupt ploy and stands to be the scapegoat for the scandal, it’s also true that he did intend to destroy the Vienna Woods to make a fast florin.
In his two previous Vienna mysteries, Jones, who lived in the imperial capital for many years but now resides in California, built the books around crimes involving real-life historical figures. In “The Empty Mirror” (2010), painter Gustav Klimt is accused of murdering his model. In “Requiem in Vienna” (2009), someone’s trying to murder Gustav Mahler. Klimt resurfaces in “The Silence,” where there’s also a youthful role for little Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Jones’ investigator, Advokat Karl Werthen, is up against a less virulent form of anti-Semitism than Grossman’s Kraus, because we’re in Vienna in 1900, not Hitler’s Berlin. The period setting of the novel and its stately, delicate prose are suggestive of Conan Doyle. Indeed, Werthen and his sidekick, the medical examiner Doktor Hanns Gross, are a Viennese Holmes and Watson. It’s hard to imagine a novel of anti-Semitism and crime being cozy, but Jones creates a warmth between Werthen and Gross that’s very much in the fireside-snug Baker Street style.
Chandler and Hammett
Vilmos Kondor’s “Budapest Noir” is also redolent of classic crime novels. In his native Hungary, he has been compared to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Certainly there’s a self-consciously hardboiled element to the book (“This was Budapest, not Chicago,” the narrator notes at one point). But Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade and Continental Op used their cynicism to mask their honorable hearts. As “Budapest Noir” begins, Zsigmond Gordon, a journalist on the crime beat and Kondor’s sleuth, is more of a Camus existentialist. When forced to join his newspaper’s blanket coverage of the funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gombos (who did, in reality, die in 1936, having earlier that year promised Herman Goering that within two years he would have made Hungary a fully fascist country with himself as dictator), Gordon complains that he dislikes politics. He disdains the leaders lined up for the rites and the politics they impose on the people of Europe, then he shrugs that “there’s nothing I can do about it, that’s for sure.”
As in many crime novels, there’s a good deal of tiresome wandering about in Act II as the sleuth follows the leads. Still Gordon comes much more to resemble the noir kingpin Marlowe, who, like this Hungarian journalist, often ended up investigating something from which he stood to profit little − just because it was the right thing to do.
Matt Rees is the author of five crime novels, most recently “Mozart’s Last Aria.”