In last month’s Whodunit column I made a rare exception and included a period mystery among the reviews, something I said I normally avoid. This month I may have to eat my words, reviewing not just one, but two excellent suspense novels set in the past, one in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and one in 1840s Istanbul.
J. Sydney Jones breathes life into turn-of-the-century Vienna in his stylish and atmospheric The Empty Mirror. After an evening-long tryst, a lovely young woman finds she has missed the last tram home; now she must pick her way through the dark lanes of Stephansdom to get back to her Third District apartment. She is more than a little nervous, and with good reason: the newspapers have been trumpeting reports of a serial killer on the loose in Vienna. Suddenly she realizes she has gotten lost. It will prove to be a fatal mistake. The following morning, lawyer Karl Werthen receives a disheveled and agitated visitor, renowned art nouveau painter Gustav Klimt. “They say I have murdered the girl. Imbeciles. She was my lovely Liesel, the best model I’ve ever had.” Just the previous night, Werthen and his friend, criminologist Hanns Gross, had been discussing the murders; now, it appears, they will be in the thick of things, searching the mean streets and the hallowed halls of the Austrian capital for some shred of evidence that will exonerate their famously quirky client. If you like the style and convoluted plotting of say, Conan Doyle, but with a modern sensibility, The Empty Mirror should be right up your alley.
Intrigue in Istanbul
Jason Goodwin’s protagonist, Istanbul’s Inspector Yashim (from the Edgar Award-winning The Janissary Tree) is unusual among fictional detectives, perhaps unique, in that he is a eunuch. A unique eunuch (sorry). So, as you might imagine, he engages in loftier pursuits than, say, chasing comely Turkish girls through the Grand Bazaar. In his latest adventure, The Bellini Card, Yashim is tasked with unearthing a Venetian masterpiece, the fabled Bellini portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror. Mehmet, for those hazy on their Byzantine history, snatched Constantinople from the Christians in 1453, creating an empire that would stretch from the Black Sea to the Balkans, at the ripe old age of 21. So it is only natural that the newly ascended sultan would want the portrait of his iconic ancestor. Court intrigues abound, however, and Yashim deems it prudent to send his friend Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador to the Ottoman court, in his stead. Yashim and Palewski will not be the only ones in search of the Bellini, however, and at least one of their competitors is willing to kill for it. Yashim is a clever and formidable protagonist, Palewski his perfect foil; think Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in seraglio outfits and you won’t be far off.
Burke’s final ride
Fans of Andrew Vachss’ Burke series know the take-no-prisoners protagonist as something of an avenging angel. Indeed, the latest (and purportedly the last) Burke adventure, Another Life, starts out down that very path: “Revenge is like any other religion: There’s always a lot more preaching than there is practicing. And most of the preaching is about what not to practice.” Vachss weaves two disparate story lines together as Burke is drawn into a sordid kidnapping case while his own father lies dying from a gunshot wound. “Sordid” barely begins to describe the kidnapping—a young boy was snatched from the backseat of his father’s Rolls Royce shortly after witnessing his father’s impromptu assignation with a paid companion. Naturally, the father, a Saudi prince, wants his child back; it is equally important to him that the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping not become tabloid fodder. Enter Burke, courtesy of his “handler,” a shadowy government spook by the name of Pryce. This is definitely not a job Burke wants, particularly at this time of family crisis, but according to Pryce, he has little choice. And so, once again Burke will prowl the mean streets of New York in search of answers, when in fact he may not even know all the questions. Another Life is not a book for the squeamish. Justice is dealt out with Old Testament swiftness and creativity, at times in a nightmare-inspiring manner. Somehow, though, it doesn’t have the definitive series-ending moment one might have expected. Perhaps Vachss will relent somewhere down the road and treat his fans to another novel or two?
Mystery of the month
A long-overdue Tip of the Ice Pick award goes to Scottish crime writer Val McDermid for her multifaceted and relentlessly gripping A Darker Domain. The book covers two cold cases, the first from 1984, when tensions were boiling over regarding the national miners’ strike. One Mick Prentice, a Scottish miner, abandoned his family to join the strikebreakers, or so the story goes. His family and friends were appalled; Mick had always been a leading light in the workers’ movement, and now he had defected. Still, no crime, right? Except that 20-odd years later, when his abandoned daughter faces a medical emergency and desperately needs to get in touch with him, she finds that he has literally vanished from the grid.
Second cold case, 1985: the tabloid-fodder kidnapping of Scottish heiress Catriona Maclennan Grant and her infant son Adam. Although he agreed to the kidnappers’ demands, Brodie Grant, Catriona’s wealthy father, had an ace or two up his sleeve, not to mention a pistol. At the drop site, things went south badly, and the kidnappers got away with the ransom. Catriona was shot to death in the melee, and her child was never found. A shift of scene to current-day Tuscany, where journalist Bel Richmond is immersed in a yearly gathering of a group of girlfriends. In an abandoned villa, Bel makes a pair of chilling discoveries: a huge bloodstain on the limestone floor, and an original ransom poster for Catriona Maclennan Grant. Either it is an elaborate hoax with no apparent payoff, or it is the seed of a story that stands to make Bel’s career.
Weaving these two disparate plot lines together is Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, to whom it falls to investigate both cases. McDermid advances each of the storylines separately until they are so intertwined that it becomes impossible to separate them, the intrigue mounting with each page turned. She drew upon her own childhood to make the mine workers’ struggle come to life: both of her grandfathers were miners, and she notes in the preface that she owes thanks to “the many miners and musicians whose songs and stories weave in and out of my childhood memories.”