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Posts Tagged ‘Vienna’

9780727882691The fourth novel in the Viennese Mystery series, The Keeper of Hands, has just been published in the U.S., to strong reviews. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful,” and further praised the “top-notch detecting and characterizations.” Booklist also gave it a thumbs up, noting: “As much an exploration of prewar [WWI] Vienna as it is a mystery yarn, the book is full of striking visual imagery that helps conjure up the landscape…this series is well worth a look.”

In tandem with that publication, I had an interview with journalist Guy Bergstrom for the Big Thrill, the monthly online mag of the International Thriller Writers. He asked me an interesting question about the moment I knew as a student in Vienna in the late 1960s that I wanted to stay on there for a number of years and write about the city. It brought to mind this tale of Cold War Vienna:

As a student, I frequented a dive of a café near my lodgings in the third district. It was dodgy and not gemütlich at all. A worker joint with a perpetual haze of blue smoke overhead, a zinc bar, and a jukebox on which someone was always playing “Rock around the Clock.” I would take my small orange-covered, graph lined Rhodia notebook and a pocketful of Staedtler HB pencils with me when I went there, order an achtel of gut-burning Vetliner, and imagine I was another Hemingway in the making.

One evening a rather drunken man at the next table asked me what I was scribbling. I humored him–he seemed a pleasant enough type–and said I was trying to write a short story about Vienna. He immediately got up, came to my table, and sat down without being invited, breathing rank fumes in my face as he leaned in toward me. “I’ve got a story,” he all but hissed. Then he cast his eyes about the room to make sure no one was watching.

It was early autumn and a warm evening; he was dressed in short sleeves. He quickly pulled up the sleeve on his left arm. There, on the inside of his upper bicep was a black tattoo. It took me a moment to decipher it, for it was in Gothic script. I finally realized that it was the letters “AB”.

I raised my eyebrows; he nodded. An avid reader of thrillers even then, I knew that this was his blood type. It was also his badge: he was a former SS.

“I have stories,” he whispered.

At that moment I realized I was not in Kansas (in my case, Oregon) anymore. I was out in the big world where anything could happen, swept up into the cyclone of history. I remember the frisson of excitement I experienced at that realization. I wanted to keep repeating it.

 

For more about The Keeper of Hands and the background of the Viennese Mysteries, see my podcast interview with Publishers Weekly. 99-v1-138x.PNG

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Ignaz Semmelweis

I am a great fan of Ignaz Semmelweis. I met him when researching my book on Hitler and his time in Vienna. I found the story compelling. Here was a physician who saw the obvious–not the easiest thing to do. Faced with mortality rates of 10 to 35% for women giving birth in the clinics of Vienna in the mid nineteenth century, he looked for reasons rather than excuses. These women died of what was called puerperal fever following childbirth. In fact, the Vienna General Hospital’s obstetric clinic had three times the mortality rate of the midwife’s ward.

Semmelweis, something of an outsider to Vienna at the time as a Hungarian practicing in Vienna, looked outside of the box. What was the difference here? Well, number one, many of the physicians working in the obstetric wards began their days performing autopsies and dissections in the morgue in the basement of the General Hospital. They were quite literally digging their hands into the viscera of dead bodies teaming with millions of bacteria. But of course at this time the germ theory had not yet been advanced. Bacteria was a word that awaited another century. But using simple empirical evidence, Semmelweis thought that perhaps there was a connection between those doctors dipping their hands into the open cavities of dead people, wiping them off on their soiled white jackets, and then proceeding to assist in the birth of babies, and the subsequent death of the mothers. He proposed a simple experiment: before proceeding to work on healthy individuals, doctors should wash their hands in a solution of lime and chlorine.

The mortality rate in birthing wards dropped dramatically to below 1%. (more…)

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Fans of this blog know that I occasionally post remembrances of Vienna and Europe during the final decades of the Cold War. These have always gotten a good response–good enough that I have gathered some of these together (plus a long short story) for a memoir now available as an Amazon Kindle.

Here is the blue-eyed refugee from the Biafran War, Ubhani, the man in the tower of the title, seeking asylum in the Austrian capital; the Hungarian patriot who pays his own special tribute to the 1956 uprising; the nondescript state police agent commissioned to watch foreigners in neutral Austria to ensure they did not ruffle the feathers of the Soviets; the editor of a prestigious Viennese publishing house none too eager to do business with a brash young Ami.

Travel back to Czechoslovakia just months after the Soviet’s brutal suppression of Prague Spring in’68; to guard towers along the waist-deep waters of a lake on the Austro-Hungarian border; to a cozy armchair at the British Council Library; to an all-purpose Tabak Trafik: to life in a Cretan cave; or to the final voyage of the SS France.

An added bonus is the short story, “Body Blows,” which introduces Sam Kramer, the foreign correspondent protagonist from my new series of novels set in Europe following the fall of the Wall.

Cover art is by a talented graphic artist, Peter Ratcliffe.

And hey, at $4.99, what’s not to like?

Enjoy!

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Some facts and figures.  For many of these I must thank Tony Judt, a gentleman and scholar who is sorely missed. His Postwar is an incredibly readable overview of Europe from 1945 to the early years of the new millennium.

I have mentioned elsewhere that Vienna in the 1960s was, in the words of my poet-friend George Vance, arrested in the Moose Lodge stage of development. Some numbers: Car ownership was low at the time: Great Britain had only about 2,300 cars in 1951; Spain just 89,000; and in France only one in twelve households had a car. But between 1950 and 1980, car ownership doubled each decade.  The advent of the Volkswagen Beetle, the Renault 4CV,the Fiat 500 and 600, and the Citroen 2CV transformed Europe from a continent on public transport to one in the private car looking for the next rest stop. (more…)

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I did not grow up in the land of shopping malls. A trip to Portland once a year promised riches at the local Meier and Frank, Oregon’s simulacrum of Macy’s. Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward (truncated to Monkey Ward in Oregon speak) were our connections to the great outside world of consumerism.

Still we in our small coastal town had our Safeway, we could boast a Penny’s nearby. You knew where to buy things; maybe they were distant, but once you traveled to those stores, you knew where things were. The world was a well-organized place, each aisle to a different good. (more…)

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Another installment of memoirs:

The New York Statler Hilton

I didn’t know it at the time, but the New York Statler Hilton (that’s what it was called in 1968 when I was a guest/victim there) has the dubious distinction of having the New York phone number in longest continuous use. The number, PEnnsylvania 6-5000, has been around so long, in fact, that it was the inspiration for the 1940 Glen Miller hit.

I didn’t know the number, though. Couldn’t have called if I wanted to, trussed up like a Christmas goose, my own Clorox scented handkerchief stuck down my gob. They cut the phone line, too, just in case.

They. Sorry. Antecedent. The two fellows who helped me find my room. Me, an obvious hick from the sticks on my first ever trip on my own, headed to school in Europe. The Statler Hilton was full of twenty-year-olds like me, gathered there to spread out across the European continent for junior-year-abroad programs. Fresh-faced, whitebread kids from all over the hinterland all gathered at the Statler. (more…)

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Toothpicks in the Foam

Baron Freiherr Franz von Uchatius

More tales of Cold War Vienna:

That year I lived on Uchatiusgasse, a long and undistinguished street, not far from the Landstrasse stadtbahn station. It was a word so full of gutturals that I never questioned until years later the derivation of the name. My street, it turns out, was named after one of those curious nineteenth-century autodidacts, Baron Freiherr Franz von Uchatius, an inventor and military man who once ran the Vienna Arsenal. Among his inventions was a primitive projector for moving pictures that predated the American Edison’s by fifty years. He gained military renown and a general’s rank for his invention of a steel bronze alloy that proved effective in casting military weapons. However, when one of the cannon cast from this metal exploded while being demonstrated to the Emperor himself, Uchatius took the Viennese way out and killed himself. (more…)

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