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Archive for July, 2010

Here’s another from Cold War Vienna. This is a reprise from a guest gig I did at the blog of writer Jim Thompson, Jimland. In case you missed it there:

In the beginning was the word.

Well, one cent a word, to be exact. Or sometimes twenty-five cents for a column-inch of them.

And we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But with my newspapers that was literally true: ten dollars per each 5×7 black and white shot.

Hemingway developed his terse, adjective-free style writing cable dispatches from the front lines of the early twentieth century. I developed a flatulent, baroque style on the front lines of padded per-word journalism. I was a budding feuilletonist even before I knew what that word meant.

My life in crime began with travel articles for my local newspaper, the Seaside Signal. What did the folks back home make of my stories about the bird lady of Stadt Park, or the vintner down the street from my Viennese lodgings who was stuck with a 20,000 liter vat full of 1942 Muller Thurgau which had turned to pickle juice, or the ennui of thirty-two hours on the Orient Express?

My mom loved them. I earned twenty-five bucks a pop with a photo. That money went a long way in Vienna at the time. And I could actually, in all honesty, write Freiwilliger Journalist on my Austrian registry card instead of Student. A freelance journalist was almost a writer.

Soon I came up with a journalistic pyramid scheme: If my hometown paper was willing to fork over that kind of money for a local-boy-abroad story, why couldn’t I take advantage of that same public-minded spirit with every small-town newspaper in the States?

These were the days before 24-7 cable news, before the Internet offered snippets of news lifted from every reputable newspaper, thereby destroying said newspapers’ reader base. These were the days of flourishing independent dailies and weeklies all over America. Mom and pop journalism in a country otherwise run by Safeway.

The plan: Europe was full of American tourists. Even my tiny corner of it in Austria was bristling with Kodak-toting couples and families from every state in the union. You always knew the Americans. An Austrian friend once told me he knew at once I was an Ami simply because of my loose gait. Europeans never saunter–well, at least back then they did not. Europeans back then were also rarely over six foot. And there was that nagging issue of volume and volubility.

Back to the plan: I determined to interview Americans I encountered, write up a little story of their travels, get a picture or two, and then send said unsolicited article to their local paper. At twenty-five bucks a pop, I would be living fat in no time.

I was only twenty-two. Sweet innocence.

In fact, a number of newspapers did respond with checks, which, once taken to my local Laenderbank, would be cleared in a matter of days and exchanged for hard schillings. But there were never enough checks to really live on. The emphasis is on free in freelance.

Soon I found work as an in-house mailman at one of the UN offices in town. Between rounds I would work on my first novel. Occasionally checks came in from Modesto or Cherry Hills. Largely I forgot about my scheme, though, caught up in work and new friends. One of the latter hailed from a small town in Ohio. He wore a blue uniform; I wore a white lab coat. That meant I was one grade higher.

George and his singer wife had just arrived in Vienna. She was a coloratura, he played bass. It was a good friendship–still is, in fact.

I mentioned that small town in Ohio. That is called foreshadowing. Calling your attention to it is called postmodernism. I footnote it, I get more critical kudos.

Turns out George’s mother is an avid reader of the local newspaper and one day she spots a story about the local librarian who was traveling in Vienna. Written by a fellow called Jones who lives in Vienna. Next time she writes to her son, George’s mom asks, “Ever heard of this Jones?”

I never took greater pleasure in writing a letter than I did that one to the small town Ohio newspaper. Turns out they never paid me for that story they ran. It was grand fun describing to them the duties of the fourth estate, how they are the beacon of truth and objectivity, how they are the very glue of a democracy.

Two weeks later a check for fifty dollars appeared in my letterbox in the foyer.

The WORD had just gone up in value.

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Scene of the Crime is happy to have Edgar Award-winning author Stefanie Pintoff with us today. Stefanie is the author of a historical mystery series featuring Detective Simon Ziele where early criminal science meets the dark side of old New York.  Her debut novel, In the Shadow of Gotham, won the coveted Edgar for best first novel as well as the St. Martin’s Press / Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel Award. That first novel also earned nominations for the Anthony, Agatha, and RT Reviewer’s Choice Awards and raves from reviewers.  A starred review from Library Journal praised her “vividly depicted turn-of-the-century Gotham,” while Publishers Weekly, in another starred review, declared “Pintoff’s debut … will remind many of Caleb Carr at his best… The period detail, characterizations and plotting are all top-notch, and Ziele has enough depth to carry a series.” (more…)

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I loved that t-shirt. Little Nemo fallen out of bed, covers rumpled about him, hair a dandelion fuzz, and rubbing at his sleepy eyes. I wore it until it was more holes than fabric.

But maybe I shouldn’t have worn it that day.

Mid-July, hot and humid and stinking of horse dung, the city was virtually empty of Wieners, all off to the coast of Yugoslavia for their summer hols. I was keeping cool in my Little Nemo t-shirt, faded Levis and favorite pair of sandals brought back from Greece.

I was on my way to collect my check from the language school where I eked out a living. En route, I passed the offices of X Verlag on a fashionable lane in Vienna’s Inner City. I had passed that building hundreds of times before, but this was the first I actually read the polished brass plaque by the door.

It was one of those sudden inspirations and I was young and naïve enough to believe being direct was the best policy. I had been at work for the last year on a book about fin-de-siecle Vienna (fin de 19th century, that is). A loving re-creation of Vienna on the brink of the First World War when the city–led by a pantheon of artists, thinkers, musicians and writers, largely Jewish–helped form the modern sensibility.

Vienna 1900 was one of those turning points in cultural history and I was trying to make it my turf. Klimt, Mahler, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, Freud, Kokoschka, Schiele, Schnitzler and a gazillion others were all turning Vienna into a renaissance workshop of the modern world–of course quarrelsome Karl Kraus had it otherwise, dubbing fin-de-siecle Vienna a laboratory for world destruction.

This was long before Vienna 1900 had become a cottage industry in publishing and I was having no luck with American publishers. I even paired my story with Hitler’s six years in the Austrian capital as a young man to make it more salable. A Janus-faced city, then, genius the flip side of evil. But shite, still no bites.

So, back to sudden inspiration. Why not sell it in German first? I thought that hot and sticky day passing X Verlag. Why not just go pitch the damn thing to the editor?

Ah, sweet youth, so often, as Wilde so wisely said, wasted on the young.

I made it past the portier, but just barely. She took one look at me and figured I was a Gauner looking for a handout. I calmly explained I was on my way to the offices of X Verlag on the third floor, and then added in my best in English, “They are expecting me.”

That did the trick. Crazy Americans, she probably figured, they dress like hobos even though they are swimming in money.

The middle-aged lady at reception was a bit more difficult. A mole sat on her cheek with one hair sprouted out of its center and curled like a fern emerging. Impossible to take your eyes off it once spotted and in those days I was training my eye for just such peculiarities, such identifying markers for possible future characters.

“It is a beauty mole,” she said in impeccable German to my furtive glances mole-ward.

“And very beautiful it is,” I added in much less impeccable German learned mostly on the streets of Vienna. I spoke with the sing-songy twang called Wienerisch, unmistakable in a crowd of German speakers.

“Are you mocking me?”

I really did not know how to answer that one. I hadn’t been. In fact I was trying my best to be obsequious, a crawler, but with little success.

I decided to put my faux manners aside and simply blurted out my purpose and quite surprisingly, this seemed to please the receptionist. Frankness was, I imagine, something she did not often meet with in her job.

“And so you would like to speak with Frau Doktor A, just like that?” She air-snapped her fingers.

“I was hoping to. Unless she’s on vacation.”

“No appointment? No references?”

I shook my head and smiled my hapless smile.

“Just come in and talk with the managing editor on a whim.”

I shrugged. “Actually, it’s more than a whim.”

But she waved off my response, already reaching with her other hand for the phone. She was beginning to enjoy this. “I’ll see if she has a moment.”

Yes, Frau Doktor A did have a moment, but only just.

I was ushered into an office that was almost a duplicate of the Freud study, sans couch. Massive cherry wood desk, turkish carpets on the parquet, ceilings high enough to play basketball in, a green tile ceramic stove in one corner, the walls covered with framed black and white photographs of all the house’s authors. Men mostly, with that uniform, serious Central European frown on their faces, hair combed back off domed foreheads. So much forehead and so many of them.

These were the sort of folks X Verlag published, not some brash young Ami off the streets in jeans, t-shirts, and sandals.

Frau Doktor A eyed my attire first; this was Vienna in the 1970s, not Berkeley. Authors did not wear t-shirts with comic book characters stenciled on them, even historic ones such as Little Nemo. Nor did they wear sandals without socks. Black or blue, preferably. Perhaps gray might pass. White? Never. And no socks…Gottes wille!

She, on the other hand, despite the warmth and humidity, was dressed in a well-tailored gray matching jacket and skirt with cream-colored silk blouse underneath. Pearls roped her neck. She looked like she had last sweated in 1955.

Introductions were made–note the passive voice. I honestly do not recall how such introductions proceeded, but I presently found myself perched on a Biedermeier chair of questionable stability.

She listened to my pitch, and when I finished, she nodded, thanked me for coming, and sat smiling at me.

I had not heard “no,” so I continued to sit. Finally, the standard clock on the far wall tocking the wasted moments all the while, she stood and gestured toward the door.

I finally got it, and went to the door, but grew confused when suddenly there were two, not one. In the event, I chose the wrong one and ended up in Frau Doktor A’s private washroom.

“The other door, Herr Jones,” she said without bothering to cover up her amusement.

I got out of there, but not without thanking the receptionist on the way out. I was humiliated, not defeated.

This event inspired instead of discouraged my efforts at finding a home for my Hitler in Vienna. I next wrote a long query letter, in German, to the biggest dog on the publishing block in Germany. Two weeks later, I had a contract in hand. Hitler was, in those days and in Germany, hot. Especially if there was mention of the Austrian roots of the dictator.

The Germans were rather dismayed several months later to receive my doorstopper of a manuscript all in English. They had assumed that as the query letter was in German, so was my manuscript. This would take some extra work; they set me up to work with the editor of one of their imprints in Vienna: X Verlag.

My heart was not filled with acrimony; I was not looking for payback. But it was semi-sweet, nonetheless,

Frau Doktor A was a bit more polite when I went to see her next. She was still skeptical about what this Ami could contribute to the history of her city, but I was now under contract. It was not a working relationship made in heaven, but it worked.

I brought the receptionist a pot of Erika, heather, to cheer up her desk. She was my friend in perpetuity.

The book came out and surprisingly earned glowing reviews in the German-language press. I think my favorite was from the Badisches Tagblatt: “An American had to come along to enrich the dimensions of Hitler literature with such a vigorous work…. A remarkable book.”

Okay, so you are asking, how come this is called “The Fourth Man”? I’m getting to that. My sweetest revenge of all with Frau Doktor A came when she felt forced to invite me to the publication party of another author. The famous German actor Paul Hörbiger finally decided to publish his memoirs and he was in Vienna to enjoy acclaim. Americans would know him from his cameo role as the portier in the Graham Greene movie, The Third Man. He was the one to see the third man at the accident that supposedly took Harry Lime’s life. Remember him now? But that was mere fluff in a career that spanned decades, 250 films (!) and made him a celebrity. Though born in Budapest, he grew up in Vienna, and was a Wiener through and through.

I came to the offices this time rather dandily attired in suede jacket–Armani before he was ARMANI– gray wide wale cords, MacDonald tartan shirt and black knit tie. The receptionist had plucked her mole hair for the occasion. She bustled about the room with the aplomb of a Munich beer hall waitress, her silver-plated tray of sekt-filled stemware held aloft like a sacrificial offering, making sure I was well supplied.

When introduced to me, Hörbiger took an immediate interest in my book. We sat ensconced in a corner most of the night talking of Vienna 1900 and the early days of Hitler. Twice Frau Doktor A asked if she couldn’t get us something. The second time, Hörbiger, a gentleman of the old school, told her not to bother us again.

When I left that night, Frau Doktor A gave me two cheek kisses; I had arrived.

Hörbiger (to the left)  in fact was the gift that kept on giving for me in Vienna thereafter. He sent me an autographed copy of his memoir, Ich hab für euch gespielt,(I Played for You), and when I went to pick it up at the post office, the officials there of course noted the return address on the package. I was thereafter referred to as “Herr Doktor Jones” by all post office staff, the fourth man.

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Today’s guest at Scene of the Crime is Canadian author Anthony Bidulka, creator of the Russell Quant series set in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, as well as various locales around the world. As New York’s Mystery Scene Magazine noted, “Quant makes for a riveting hero…the kind you want to have–unless you’re a killer.”

Bidulka is the winner of Lambda Literary Award and a two-time finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award. Bidulka’s series, which began in 2003 with Amuse Bouche, is seven strong with the 2010 addition, Date with a Sheesha, set partly in the Middle East. Toronto’s Globe & Mail felt that “Bidulka has created a clever series that has loads of charm and wit.”

Anthony, thanks much for joining us on Scene of the Crime. I love the short bio from your homepage: “Anthony Bidulka has enjoyed time well-spent and misspent in the worlds of academia, accounting, footwear, food services and farming. In 1999 Anthony Bidulka, BA, BEd, BComm, CA left a decade long career as a Chartered Accountant to pursue writing.” Good career choice. (more…)

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Scene of the Crime has thus far been remiss in not including an Irish author into the mix. This post redresses that oversight. Declan Burke is most verifiably an Irish author of crime fiction whose work has been compared to Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. Fellow Irish writer Ken Bruen calls Burke “the future of Irish crime fiction.”

Burke’s debut novel, Eightball Boogie, features pot-smoking and wisecracking PI Harry Rigby, who according to Booklist, resembles “the gin-soaked love child of Rosalind Russell and William Powell.” The same reviewer called this first novel “a wild ride worth taking,” while London’s Sunday Times concluded, “A manic, edgy tone that owes much to Elmore Leonard … could be the start of something big.”

Burke’s The Big O, is a caper crime novel about which Booklist declared, “Fans of comic noir will find plenty to enjoy here.” In a starred Kirkus Reviews article, a critic observed, “Imagine Donald Westlake and his alter ego Richard Stark moving to Ireland and collaborating on a screwball noir, and you have some idea of Burke’s accomplishment.” The Irish Times similarly felt that The Big O “carries on the tradition of Irish noir with its Elmore Leonard-like style.” Burke’s 2009 Crime Always Pays “is a worthy successor,” Dana King commented in the New Mystery Reader. King described the plot of that book as “a little like what might be expected if Elmore Leonard wrote from an outline by Carl Hiaasen.” (more…)

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China-born author, Qiu Xiaolong, is the Anthony Award-winning creator of the Inspector Chen series, set in 1990s Shanghai. The series, which started in 2000 with Death of a Red Heroine, now has six installments with the 2009 addition The Mao Case, and has been translated into twenty languages. The Wall Street Journal called Xiaolong’s first novel one of the five best political novels of all time, ranking it with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Of The Mao Case, a reviewer for Booklist noted that it is “full, as always, of crisp detail and vivid atmospherics evoking contemporary Shanghai.” A Publishers Weekly contributor also had praise for the 2007 series addition, Red Mandarin Dress, pointing to its “first-rate characterizations and elegant portrait of a society attempting to move from rigid Maoist ideologies to an accommodation with capitalism.” (more…)

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In honor of the Fourth of July, and my son’s birthday, I offer a bit of personal information.

I have written a dozen books and hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines, and encyclopedias. A full half of my published travel books, historical narratives, biographies, thrillers, and mysteries deal with or are set in Vienna, Austria. This is more than a quirk on my part. I was a student in Vienna in 1968, and went on to live in that city, and in other parts of Europe, for roughly the next twenty years.

I admit to being more than partly in love with Vienna. Having grown up in a small coastal town in Oregon, I was charmed and amazed by the Austrian capital, my first big city. And this was 1968, when, as a dear friend of mine liked to say, Vienna was still in the Moose Lodge stage of development. My landlady rationed my baths to once weekly; there were roughly torn squares of the daily Kurier newspaper dangling on a string from a bent nail in the clo to be used as toilet paper; beer, of a delicious species I had never known existed, was fifteen cents the pint; a good schnitzel cost less than a buck; ten p.m. was considered late; Bill Haley and His Comets still had pride of place in juke boxes. It was love at first sight. Vienna in the Sixties and Seventies had the rough-hewn quality of Dublin in the Eighties; both have since gone distinctly uptown. I liked them better as the down-at-heel dowagers they once were.

My year of college in Vienna provided a revelation of a different sort, as well: I discovered that I wanted to write. Weaned of television for the first time since I was five, I found that writing was not simply a youthful pose, but was instead something I needed to do. Vienna served as my Paris for the next decades: it was cheap, friendly, accommodating, full of music, and bristling with spies. Vienna was situated only miles away from the communist satellite countries of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I had my personal watcher, a pale, slim fellow who showed up at the oddest times and places. You felt on the edge in Vienna in those years, though it was at heart the coziest of bourgeois cities. Vienna was, and will always be, my second home; my daughter was born there, and I came to a facsimile of adulthood there.

I soon found a theme that I have explored for several decades: the amazing renaissance of Vienna 1900. That culture and epoch created the modern sensibility through the works of such seminal artists, writers, and thinkers as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Arthur Schnitzler, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others. Vienna 1900 was also the breeding ground for such future tyrants as Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler, all of whom also spent time in the city. My Hitler in Vienna, 1907-1913: Clues to the Future began this exploration, juxtaposing the largely Jewish-led ferment in culture against the early down-and-out years of Hitler. I went on to write guides, Vienna Inside Out and Viennawalks, as well as the World War II thriller, Time of the Wolf, all of them inspired by my researches and years of living in Vienna.

In the mid 1990s I first toyed with creating a historical mystery series set in Vienna 1900. Early attempts had Mark Twain and then Thomas Edison as the protagonists. Finally, however, I hit on using a character from those abortive novels, Hanns Gross, the real-life “father of criminology,” as one of the major characters in a new attempt at a series. Methods of modern crime detection, including crime-scene preservation, the gathering and examination of footprints and fingerprints, the study of blood traces and weapons, handwriting analysis, and the vetting and interviewing of witnesses and suspects, were established by Gross in his decades as an investigative magistrate (at once an investigating officer and circuit court judge). Later, as the first professor of criminology in the Habsburg realms, Gross codified his principles in hundreds of articles and in the classic texts Criminal Investigation and Criminal Psychology. In many ways, Gross was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

The series really took off, however, when I struck on my real protagonist, a fictional lawyer named Karl Werthen. Werthen, when we meet him, is in wills and trusts, having given up criminal law several years earlier for reasons we do not at first understand. Meanwhile, he fills out the missing parts of his creative life by penning precious short stories that few read. This all changes one morning when a client of his, the controversial artist Gustav Klimt, comes to him for help: the police suspect him as the perpetrator of a series of grisly murders in Vienna during the summer of 1898. Werthen soon calls in his old colleague, Gross, to aid in this case.

Thus our duo makes its debut in The Empty Mirror, a novel which features, among other luminaries of Vienna 1900 such as Klimt, the sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, the Habsburtg heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.

Werthen and Gross return for a second installment, Requiem in Vienna, in which the composer Gustav Mahler is at the center of the action. Each book in the series features one or more actual historical figures from the time in an exploration of a society on the edge of the momentous changes, an imperial culture locked on a path toward the convulsions of World War I.

Book three in the series, The Silence, finds Werthen and Gross investigating a murder at City Hall that leads them to an investigation of political corruption and a scheme to sell off the prized Vienna Woods. Mayor Karl Lueger, who won office by an appeal to demagoguery and anti-Semitism and later famously said “I will decide who is a Jew”, is a featured character in this novel, as is the young Ludwig Wittgenstein. The latter more sensibly stated, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

I feel as if I have finally come to my true writing home with these Viennese mysteries. They allow me a happy blend of research and fiction. As the series progresses (I am at work now on the fourth installment), I have become more familiar with Werthen, his family, and friends. It is an association I hope to cultivate for many years.

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