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Archive for May, 2010

We continue with personal reminiscences of Cold War Vienna:

Vienna Rathaus or City Hall

Vienna was my Paris. From the late 1960s through the 1980s I made it my home, my workshop, my personal museum. I became a writer there coasting on the strong dollar: a krügel, or pint of beer was a quarter; dinner, a schnitzel so big it hung over the sides of a large porcelain plate, was a couple of bucks; rent a room for thirty dollars, a studio apartment for sixty. The Vienna Woods was a tram ride away, another quarter.

I was, in short, an elective ex-pat.

But there were others who were in Vienna out of pure raw necessity.

Ubhani was one of these. They called him the man in the tower.

I met him when I was working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)–pure grunt work of getting documents filed and boxed for the annual conference at the Hofburg. It was a good gig: tax-free dollar payment and commissary privileges. I worked the conference every summer, saved up the money, and could go to Venice for part of the fall, the mountains of Styria for the winter. We usually worked out of the cellars in the Hofburg, but one summer I got a different assignment.

It was the Rathaus, City Hall, for me. The rabbit warrens we called it, where document overflow from IAEA headquarters on the Ring (no ultra-modern U.N. City across the Danube in those days) were stored. The U.N. rented the space from city hall officials; Vienna was happy to take the extra money.

And the man in the tower was in charge of that tinderbox. I hated the Rathaus detail; it scared the crap out of me. The docs section was on the top floor up a long and winding staircase. One way up, one way down. No fire escape. And the place was filled floor to ceiling with dusty, yellowing paper documents.

I got to know Ubhani that summer.

The first time I met him, the burn scars on his face–tight and smooth like oil on water–made me wince. But you couldn’t look at those scars long; something else drew your attention. It was the eyes. Blue, deep Alpine-lake blue.

Ubhani was African, a refugee from Biafra; he’d fought on the losing side.

We worked the first few days together in relative silence, gathering requested docs from a dizzying array of stacks, the organizational logic to which only Ubhani was privy. He’d been in charge of the Rathaus docs for several years now–no one else could tolerate that claustrophobic, dusty, windowless environment.

Finally he opened to me, mostly I guess because I did not ask questions or stare at his scars and startling blue eyes.

And this is what he told me.

Ubhani had been in the Nigerian military for years, a tank commander. He retired for a time, became a mercenary fighting in brush wars in Africa. In one such conflict he was able to liberate (his word) several gold bars from a bank. He was set. He returned to his village in southeastern Nigeria, married his childhood sweetheart, built the biggest damn house for miles around, and had a family.

Hofburg

Then came the Nigerian Civil War. The region where Ubhani lived was part of the state of Biafra, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, prompting all-out conflict. Ubhani, an Igbo, felt compelled to come to the aid of his people. He led a tank battalion for the Biafran army. But the Biafrans stood little chance from the start. Encircled, the fledgling state held out for several years of fierce fighting. He lost his home; his family was killed by national troops. He and his men had little to eat; he had to drink his own urine at time for want of water. Finally, surrounded in a battle, his tank was hit and he was badly burned before he could get out, blinded by the fire.

But he was saved. The Red Cross airlifted him out to neutral Austria, where he was cared for. A blue-eyed teen from Klagenfurt died in a motorcycle accident, and Ubhani inherited his vision, having a corneal transplant that kept him totally immobilized for several months until the transplant set.

Slowly, slowly, he recovered, trying all the while not to think of the family and way of life he had lost forever in Biafra. Then, after six months in the Viennese hospital, Ubhani was declared healed. He was given the burned and ragged fatigues he wore upon arrival and also a one-way air ticket to Lagos.

Austria had done its job. Ubhani was going home.

Except that he couldn’t. A firing squad awaited him there. So he cashed in the ticket and stayed on in Vienna illegally. The Americans, he thought, might give him refugee status. But at the American embassy he was only offered a free pass to Vietnam: fight for two tours and you get citizenship, they told him. Problem was, Ubhani had to wear glasses with his new eyes. Glasses spell death for a front line soldier–snipers can spot you from the glint. He drank the proffered glass of Johnny Walker and left the embassy.

The Brits, French, and Swiss embassies were no help, either. It was late fall now, and Ubhani was still in his summer

The Modern UN City

fatigues. Being black in Vienna in the early 1970s was hard: you were a rarity, someone to be stared at. But being black in ragged clothes and living on the streets, Ubhani became an object of hatred. Kids spat at him; old ladies thwacked him with their black umbrellas.

Fall turned to early winter and Ubhani could no longer sleep rough in the Prater. His last ditch effort was a visit to the IAEA. The guard on duty by the main door did not allow him to enter at first, but he was a fellow ex-military guy and Ubhani told him his sorry tale. The guard allowed him to clean up in the basement restrooms and then got him in to see personnel.

It turns out, just that day the Rathaus docs section had been approved. It needed someone to organize it; someone desperate enough to take a job in miserable airless conditions.

That was Ubhani.

I always wondered how he managed to climb those narrow stairs to work each day after having been trapped in a burning tank.

I never asked him though. Ubhani was not the sort of man you asked questions of.

So we worked together that summer, the ex-pat and the blue-eyed refugee–the man in the tower.

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Peter Steiner is the author of three novels featuring former State Department expert Louis Morgon, currently retired in the Loire Valley of France. However, Morgon gets up to more hi-jinx than your normal septuagenarian. Steiner, who has been a New Yorker cartoonist for several decades with over 400 cartoons sold, has written three books in the Louis Morgon series: A French Country Murder (titled L’Assassin in its paperback edititon), Le Crime, and The Terrorist, just out.

Steiner’s works have been likened to a cross between The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Year in Provence. The Washingtonian dubbed Le Crime “A page-turner—like a good Alan Furst or Graham Greene novel,” while in its starred review for L’Assassin, Publishers Weekly declared, “Literate crime thrillers don’t get much better than this.” Booklist termed Steiner’s new work, The Terrorist, “a superb novel and a deeply human story about engaging people, life, illness, love, and terrorism,” as well as a “a compact gem of espionage.” (more…)

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The continent of Africa has been carved up by many talented mystery writers, as we shall see in future posts. Botswana has been laid claim to by Michael Stanley–the writing team of Michael Sears (left in the picture) and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.

They have been on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe, where they have had many adventures, including tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, being charged by an elephant, and having their plane’s door pop open over the Kalahari, scattering navigation maps over the desert. These trips have fed their love both for the bush, and for Botswana. (more…)

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Dubbed the Donna Leon of Istanbul by critics, British writer Barbara Nadel has built a fascinating and deeply felt series of contemporary procedurals set in the Turkish capital and featuring the chain-smoking, brandy-swilling Inspector Ikmen, husband to a strict Muslim woman (who disapproves of his drinking) and loving father of numerous bairns. Her series debut, Belshazzar’s Daughter, finds Ikmen investigating a brutal murder in Istanbul’s rundown Jewish quarter. London’s Literary Review found that first novel an “intriguing, exotic whodunit,” and the London Independent also commended that series opener, writing, “Set in Istanbul, with a battered, cynical and credible Turkish cop, and a great blooming baroque plot (ditto talent).”

Since that first novel, Nadel, a former actress, has penned eleven more in the Inspector Ikmen series (as well as four wonderfully atmospheric World War II novels in a series featuring London undertaker Francis H). Her latest, Death by Design, is out this coming December in the U.S. Nadel, winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger for Deadly Web, is hard at work on number thirteen in her powerful series, and we wish her luck with that.

Barbara, I am so pleased to finally have you on Scene of the Crime. I have been a fan for years. (more…)

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Alan Furst exploded onto the espionage literary scene with his 1988 novel, Night Soldiers. A former Fulbright Teaching fellow at the Faculte des Lettres at the University of Montpellier, freelance writer for magazines, and author of four novels, Furst returned to France in the mid 1980s where he began writing for the International Herald Tribune. There he penned the first of his espionage novels, which has been followed in succession by ten further novels that take the reader into the interwar period in Eastern, Central, and Western Europe.

I must confess to a personal abiding admiration for that first novel, followed close upon by my love for The Polish Officer, from 1995. But each of Furst’s novels delivers a loving and endearing evocation of a particular time and place–Europe between the First and Second World Wars.

Dubbed “America’s preeminent spy novelist” by the New York Times, Furst, a native of Manhattan, has featured about every European capital you can think of, from Istanbul to Paris to Rome to Sofia. In his intricate, realistic, and believable narratives, Furst serves up protagonists (for he does not feature any one person in his novels) who risk their lives to fight against  evil in the world. That specific evil is Nazi power on the eve of World War II. (more…)

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Winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic best traditional first mystery contest with her book Posed for Murder, Meredith Cole was also a finalist for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her series protagonist is Lydia McKenzie, an edgy art photographer who recreates murder scenes in a film noir style. In the series debut, Lydia is forced into the role of sleuth when the police find the model of one of her photographs murdered. The setting of Cole’s first mystery, the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, “lends social and cultural interest” to the story,  according to Publishers Weekly.

In her second outing, Dead in the Water, just out, Lydia tries to discover who is killing local prostitutes. Publishers Weekly noted of this series addition, “Cole quickly hooks the reader with credible characters and a tantalizing puzzle.”

Merdith, it’s good of you to take time out from your promotional efforts to speak with Scene of the Crime. (more…)

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This post continues a series of  personal reflections on Vienna, a city that is my very own Scene of the Crime–setting for my Viennese Mystery series and for much of my other published work.  That this article appears on Mothers Day is purely fortuitous and more than somewhat ironic. Read on to discover why.

For those of you who love to play butterflies or six degrees of separation, the world of Vienna 1900 is no stranger. Going forward or backward in time, you’re pretty likely to hit on a link in fin de siècle Vienna if you’re dealing with someone in the arts, literature, science, or world affairs. From Freud to Mahler, Klimt, and Hitler, the city was an amazing cauldron of cultural innovation (and, yes, in Hitler’s case, destruction) around the turn of the previous century.

At the epicenter of all was the young polymath, Karl Kraus, cultural critic, grammar policeman, and word maven of Vienna 1900. Kraus, a frail-looking man, beavered away for over three decades, single-handedly publishing his magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch). In this journal he took on the hypocrisies of the day, stood up to the rich and the powerful when need be, fought crime and societal stupidity, and generally pissed off everybody. The ultimate aphorist, Kraus termed Vienna 1900 a “laboratory for world destruction.”

In my novel, Requiem in Vienna, I describe Kraus thusly:

“A slight man with a curly head of hair and tiny oval wire-rim glasses that reflected the overhead lights, Kraus dressed like a banker. One of nine children of a Bohemian Jew who had made his money in paper bags, Kraus lived on a family allowance that allowed him to poke fun at everyone in the pages of his journal.”

Kraus frankly did not care who he angered. And sometimes he paid the price for his outspoken views. Once part of the Jung Wien group of writers, including, among others, Arthur Schnitzler–whom Freud termed his double–and the young Felix Salten–later author of Bambi– Kraus soon turned against them. In a famous article, he ridiculed the group’s coffee-house culture and earned a bitch slap from Salten at the Café Central for his words. On another occasion, he took a punch on the nose from an irate cabaret performer who did not care for Kraus’s reviews.

Kraus was most definitely a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he could defend the right of prostitutes to carry on their trade unmolested by the authorities:

“Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of an individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country.”

At the same time, however, he could write this about women in general:

“Intercourse with a woman is sometimes a satisfactory substitute for masturbation. But it takes a lot of imagination to make it work.”

No one ever said Kraus was likable.

Something of the H.L. Mencken of Vienna, Kraus enjoyed a turn of phrase, enjoyed shocking people. But most of all he enjoyed being at the center of the rippling pool of Vienna 1900’s artists and intellectuals. He was the ultimate filter of gossip in fin-de-siècle Vienna; he knew where all the bodies were buried.

Kraus was also a major celebrity in his day. “I am already so popular that anyone who vilifies me becomes more popular than I am,” he liked to say. Besides the regular publication of his journal, Kraus was also a performer. Again from Requiem in Vienna:

“Despite his slightness of bearing, Kraus had a fine speaking voice. He had tried for a career as an actor as a younger man, but stage fright had intervened. He was said to be experimenting with a new form of entertainment, however, much like the American, Mark Twain and his famous one-person shows. At fashionable salons, Kraus was already entertaining the cognoscenti with his interpretations of Shakespeare and with readings from his own writings. Another of his aphorisms Werthen [my investigator protagonist] had heard: ‘When I read, it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.’”

And oh my but he makes one hell of a fictional character. So acerbic, so full of self-contradictions, so full of himself. I am not sure I would have liked to sit down over a cup of coffee or glass of wine with the man–nor he with me, I am sure–but anybody who could quip that “psychoanalysis is that disease of which it purports to be the cure” would have been worth knowing.

(For those who read German, the entire edition of Kraus’s Die Fackel is available free online)

(This post originally appeared on the blog, Murder Is Everywhere.)

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