The Third Place is the sixth installment in my Viennese Mystery series, set at the turn of the twentieth century and featuring private inquiries agent Advokat Karl Werthen and his partner in crime detection, the real-life father of criminology, the Austrian Hanns Gross. In this series addition, Werthen and Gross investigate the murder of Herr Karl, a renowned headwaiter at one of Vienna’s premier cafés. As the investigation turns up new clues, Werthen and Gross are suddenly interrupted in their work by a person they cannot refuse. They are commissioned to locate a missing letter from the emperor to his mistress, the famous actress Katharina Schratt. Franz Josef is desperate for the letter not to fall into the wrong hands, for it contains a damning secret. As the intrepid investigators press on with this new investigation, they soon discover that there has also been an attempt to assassinate the emperor. Eventually, Werthen and Gross realize that the case of the murdered headwaiter and the continuing plot to kill the emperor are connected, and they now face their most challenging and dangerous investigation yet.
This novel takes its title from the Viennese saying, First is home, next comes work, and then the third place is the coffeehouse. In fact, much of the inspiration for the writing of this book comes from the Viennese coffeehouse and its history and legends.
At one point early in the novel, Werthen and his wife, Berthe, meet with Karl Kraus, cultural critic, grammar policeman, and word maven of Vienna 1900. Kraus has served as a source of information for Werthen several times in the series, and in the following scene, he provides a possible theory re the murder of Herr Karl:
“Do you know Herr Karl’s last name?” Kraus asked.
Werthen had to shake his head at this.
“I thought not. Though supreme in their leadership at the café, the Herr Ober has no surname. He is simply Herr Karl or Herr Viktor.” Kraus made a dramatic pause, then, “Andric. His name was Karl Jakov Andric.”
“Sounds Serbian,” Berthe said.
“And it is, dear lady. Actually, Bosnian Serb. Herr Karl’s family arrived in Vienna not long after Franz Josef became emperor, escaping Ottoman rule. They were Christians, and only too happy to finally make it to a Christian land. Ironic, however, Herr Karl’s choice of trade, don’t you think?”
“Exactly,” Kraus said, looking at Werthen as a pleased headmaster might gaze at a bright pupil. “The family flees Turkish Ottoman rule only to have the son take up a trade created by the Turks. It is a pleasing story for schoolchildren. The loyal Polish trader Kolschitzky rewarded for his spying services during the Turkish siege of Vienna by making off with bags of coffee beans found in the camp of the vanquished Turks. Beans which only he knew what to do with. And like most children’s tales, it is mostly myth. The Armenians preceded Kolschitzky, but then who cares for the truth when fable is so much more alluring?”
“But what could Her Karl’s ancestry have to do with his death?” Berthe said, growing exasperated at Kraus’s asides.
“This is hearsay, Advokat,” Kraus said, directing the conversation at Werthen in silent rebuke to Berthe–a woman daring to continually badger the greatest intellect of Vienna. “So do not quote me, but from my unofficial café historians I have heard that Herr Karl’s father was something of a revolutionary while in Bosnia, eager, though a Serb, to keep that region independent of greater Serbia. It is said that perhaps his emigration was not stirred so much by dislike for the Ottomans, but for fear of retribution from Serbian nationalists. Perhaps they took out revenge on his son at long last. There are rumors, after all, of a secret organization formed by the Serbian military last year. The Black Hand. Quite dramatic, don’t you think. The purpose of said secret society is assassination.”
Werthen did not bother to write down anything more than Herr Karl’s full name. This avenue of investigation seemed too incredible to warrant exploration.
Kraus touches on many of the themes later developed in The Third Place. But of importance here is his historical aside to the founding of the Viennese coffeehouse. I have long been fond of the Kolschitzky tale, no matter, as Kraus says, its apocryphal nature. He is one of those fascinating footnotes to history who become symbolic for an entire epoch and is also an inspiration for The Third Place.
Kolschitzky was simply one of many messengers who, for a high price, braved the Turkish lines during the 1683 siege of Vienna to tell the relieving army to advance, that the situation inside the walls of the town had greatly deteriorated. Kolschitzky and his servant made a treacherous round trip though enemy lines wearing Turkish garb.
A Pole, Kolschitzky had worked for a time as an interpreter in Constantinople and could thus blend in linguistically with the Turks. Both he and his servant were paid 200 ducats for delivering this life-saving message.
Kolschitzky must have been a master of public relations, for it is his exploits that chroniclers of the siege chose to report, even though there were numerous other such messengers making the perilous journey through enemy lines. Indeed, in the chronicles of the siege, Kolschitzky’s deeds take on a magnitude of importance in league with the commander of the Viennese fortifications, Stahremberg, or the burgomaster, Liebenberg, who died defending the city.
After the Turks were routed on September 12, 1683, by a relieving force of 120,000 Germans and Poles, the spoils were handed out all around. The Turks had taken most of their treasury with them, but among other things left behind were sacks and sacks full of coffee beans. The Viennese had yet to discover the joys of coffee; however, Kolschitzky knew of the wonderful beverage from his time in Constantinople, and he agreed to take these “useless beans” as a further reward for his service to Vienna.
He proceeded to open Vienna’s first coffeehouse, “At the Sign of the Blue Bottle,” and started what has become a Viennese institution, the café, so vital to Viennese life that it is called “the third place.”