Austrian Crime – Some Reasons Why You Might Like Alex Beer’s Crime Series

Alex Beer is an Austrian crime writer whose books have won many prestigious prizes. The Leo Perutz Preis and the Austrian Krimipreis, among others. Alex Beer was born in Bregenz. She lives in Vienna. The August Emmerich series is her first series. She’s now writing another one with a protagonist called Isaak Rubinstein.

I discovered her August Emmerich crime series at the book shop a while ago. Usually I don’t read historical crime, or very rarely, but the setting – Vienna after WWI – immediately caught my attention. It’s such a fascinating period. Unfortunately, they didn’t have book one at the book shop, so I picked the third in the series instead. That was a mistake, as I liked it very much, and will now have to go back and start with book one. That’s the reason, why this isn’t a proper review, as, so far, only the first in the series, The Second Rider, was translated. I’m sure it’s every bit as good as the third one though. I wish I had waited and ordered the first as some of what happens in Emmerich’s life in book three, spoils the first two books.

The main protagonists of the series are August Emmerich and his side-kick Ferdinand Winter, of the Austrian police force. Emmerich is a war veteran. Because of a war injury he’s in a lot of pain and has a tough time running or walking. Winter comes from a formerly rich family who has lost everything during the war. As he’s so good looking, women warm to him quite a bit. They are both likable, complex characters and I enjoyed their relationship very much.

While they are police detectives, they don’t shy away from bending the rules, if necessary. In book three, they also hunt a crime boss for personal reasons, which makes the series a bit of blend between a police procedural and a PI novel. The descriptions, mood, and atmosphere, all contribute to that as well.

The crime they must solve in book three, is suspenseful and so is the subplot, involving the crime boss, but that’s not what won me over. What I absolutely loved, besides the atmosphere, was the way Vienna was described. People are so poor. The city’s rife with criminals. There are hardly any goods available outside of the black market, where they cost a fortune. People are hungry, kids are starving. Antisemitism is on the rise. People already shout they want the annexation of Austria into Germany. The books, set in 1919 and 1920 respectively, show a country under shock. The massive multilingual Empire has been dissolved. All that remains is the comparatively small Austria, mourning its former glory.

While reading Joseph Roth, I got a feel for how huge the Austro-Hungarian Empire was. When you see what’s left after WWI, you can understand why so many think it’s all a very bad dream. Add to that the poverty and criminality, which make Vienna a very unsafe place, and you can imagine how desperate the people were.

Historical novels excel when they give you a feel for a period but also when they pique your curiosity and entice you to read more about a certain time and place. Alex Beer’s novels do exactly that. This was way more than an entertaining book. It’s rich in atmosphere and full of fascinating details. An excellent choice for those who like to read women/crime in translation.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I’ve long been a fan of Elly Griffith’s Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, slowly reading one book after the other. There are twelve books by now, four of which I’ve read. She’s also been writing a new series, The Stephens and Mephisto mysteries. I was quite pleased to see that she’s now also writing standalone novels and since The Stranger Diaries, published last year, has gotten so much praise and was called a “modern Gothic”, I decided to read it.

The story is told from three different points of view. Clare Cassidy, a fortysomething English teacher, Detective Inspector Harbinder Kaur, and Georgia or Georgie, Clare’s daughter.

Clare teaches English at a school, parts of which are located in the house of a Victorian writer. R. M. Holland was famous for his chilling short story The Stranger. In her spare time, Clare is writing a book on the author. She used to be best friends with another English teacher, Ella, but for some reason, they aren’t really close anymore. When Ella is found murdered, Clare is unsettled for many reasons, one of which is a note found next to the body. It’s a line taken from The Stranger, a short story that hardly anyone knows.

Detective Kaur instantly dislikes the tall, beautiful Clare and suspects her to either know more than she admits or to be involved in the murder. When another body is found, under even more sinister circumstances, Clare begins to fear that she and her daughter might be next.

I absolutely loved the beginning of the story, told from Clare’s point of view. I loved the setting, the mystery, the characters, but then the book switched to Detective Kaur’s point of view and while her POV is convincing, I found the book immediately lost some of its drive and most of the atmosphere. When the third narrator was introduced, Georgie, it fizzled out even more. I did not care for her parts and would have wished they’d been left out.

That said, there were still elements that made this a gripping read, I just wished, she’d told it differently. What did not work for me at all was the ending. Was it a twist? Yes. Was it believable? Absolutely not.

I’m really in two minds about this book. There’s a lot to like here but, ultimately, because of the ending, it was a disappointment. I’ll still read more of Elly Griffiths but stick to the Ruth Galloway mysteries.

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux – French Life Writing – A Post a Day in May

I own everything Annie Ernaux has written up to The Years but have only read a few of her books. Since her books are so short, she seemed an excellent choice for my May project.

Annie Ernaux is divisive. Some people adore what she does, others are put off. Those who love her, praise her honesty, those who don’t, find her indecent. I go back and forth between these two reactions. Sometimes I find it a bit too much, as well. At other times, I’m just so fascinated.

What helped me get along with her better, was to see her oeuvre as a whole. Sure, you can read single books, but you will get so much more out of reading her, when you read more or all of her. It’s never just about the story or the topics of a book with her, it’s always about the process of writing and giving meaning. Writing about a woman’s life, her body, and often, her sexuality.

Several books have been rewritten Simple Passion, her account of her love affair with a Russian diplomat, is one of those. She wrote another book about her affair many years later – Se perdre (To lose oneself – not translated, I think). Aa a reader, you often wonder – Why does she write about this? Why does she have to reveal herself like this and so does she. You’re always part of the writing process as well, part of the thought processes behind the writing.

In Simple Passion (Passion Simple), Annie Ernaux analyses a love affair she had with a married man, the previous year. The affair lasted over a year and was all-consuming. She couldn’t think of anything else but him. Couldn’t find interest in anything else or anyone else, unless they somehow reminded her of him or had something in common with him. She sat whole days next to the telephone, waiting for his call. Spent whole afternoons preparing for his arrival; shopping new clothes, painting her nails, applying new make-up.

The absence of a call is agony. A call is bliss. She’s completely dependent on this man and doesn’t exist outside of their meetings. It’s never as apparent as when she goes on a holiday to Florence. She doesn’t even want to look at anything. Just wants to think of him, imagine how he would see the place.

The book describes everything. Her weakness, her dependence, her desire, her obsession. It’s like reading the account of a drug addict. She’s aware of that herself but there isn’t anything she can do. She wonders sometimes, if he feels the same, but she has no idea. Conversation isn’t exactly part of the whole affair. Sex is important, everything else, not so much. But that is also because of the language barrier. It’s not said in this book that he’s Russian, but in a later book it is revealed. She doesn’t speak Russian, and his French, while good, is not always accurate. He has difficulties to translate deeper meaning.

Since he’s a diplomat, it’s always clear, the affair will end. When it does, she’s shattered. And she takes note of the world around her again. And writes about her affair. It takes her five months during which the Berlin wall falls and the Ceaușescus are executed.

After having finished to write about her affair, she suddenly feels shame. A shame she never felt during the affair, a shame that comes from the idea to publish.

I found the way she described this affair interesting. Most of it rang so true. Haven’t we all waited next to a phone before? Spent afternoons getting ready or endlessly talking and thinking about our love interest? I never found it problematic, that she’s honest. I found it problematic that she never questions having an affair with a married man. Not once. It’s all about her and her feelings. He’s only interesting as far as he’s the object of her desire. And the other woman? It’s as if she doesn’t exist. Obviously, this shows how honest she is, as it doesn’t really make her look good.

People were shocked when this came out in the 90s. Also, because it was a departure from her earlier work and because it’s so explicit about female desire and sexuality. It was certainly courageous to write and publish this at the time. Nowadays, I find it a bit sordid. Not because of the descriptions – it’s never very explicit anyway – but, as I mentioned, because there’s another woman. If it’s a feminist act to live our passions, isn’t it also a feminist act to think of the other woman? I’m not judging that it happened, that would be naive, these things do happen, but that she’s never thinking or writing about it.

After the translation of The Years, Annie Ernaux received a lot of attention outside of France. She’s interesting, well worth exploring, but I’d say, this isn’t the best entry point to her work.

If you’d like to read another review – here’s on I wrote on A Woman’s Life. I liked that one a great deal.

Once There Was A Family – Es war einmal eine Familie by Lizzie Doron – Israeli Literature – A Post a Day in May

Lizzie Doron is a prize-winning Israeli writer. In her work, she often uses autobiographical elements. She was born in Israel to a mother who was a Holocaust survivor. She lives in Tel Aviv. Her books have been translated into German, French, Italian but not English.

Once There Was A Family, as one would translate the Hebrew title Hajta po pa’am mischpacha, is set in Tel Aviv in the 90s. Elisabeth’s mother, Helena, has died. Elisabeth who has left the neighbourhood, in which she grew up as a teenager, returns to observe shiva in her mother’s apartment. During the seven days of the shiva, many people come to pay respect and keep her company. Some she still remembers, some are strangers. The seven days of the shiva are a journey of remembrance for Elisabeth. She dives deep into memories of her childhood, the neighbourhood, and its people.

Born in 1953, like the author, Elisabeth is second-generation, as the children of Holocaust survivors are called. She grew up alone with her mother in a neighbourhood predominantly inhabited by survivors of the Shoah. Everything turns around their memories. Everything is tainted by their memories. Sadness is everywhere. To the sadness of those who survived, often only physically, the sadness of recent wars is added. Many of the children Elisabeth grew up with die during the Six-Day war in 1963 and the Yom-Kippur war in 1973. Like the author, Elisabeth leaves the neighbourhood at eighteen, joins the army and later goes to live in a kibbutz.

I have never read a book like this before. I have read other Israeli authors, but they didn’t focus on the aftermath of the Holocaust. This book is so moving and sad, but never depressing. It allows us to enter a world, that is long lost but has left its mark on many who are still alive. There are so many books about the Holocaust, but not that many, I know of, which tell about the life in Israel, right after the war. There is no escaping the Holocaust. People feel close, because they went through the same. They differentiate each other, often calling others not by their surname but by the camp they have been in. There is one person called Itta Theresienstadt. They all have this in common – they seem to cling to the past. One of them says “I do not want to be well. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to forget.”

And it’s hard to forget as Elisabeth is reminded when the first guests come to the shiva. “One of them was small and scrawny, only bones and wrinkles, the second one tall and big. They stood in the door with crossed arms, as erect as possible, and in the candlelight, one could see the numbers on their arms”.

When there was a festivity in the past, many of the older people got annoyed. “Who are you going to invite? Your mother and father from Treblinka? Uncle Jisruel and aunt Mira from Majdanek? Your grandfather from Dachau?”

Sometimes, the memories are so overwhelming, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, when asked where they live, still answer with the number of their barracks in Auschwitz, Dachau or Treblinka.

The longer the shiva goes on, the more Elisabeth remembers the good things; not everything was overshadowed by the pervading sadness. Because of the shared past, there was a connection that made them all feel like family. You could rely on your neighbours. They would always help. They would always care. Proof of that are the many flickering remembrance candles in everyone’s apartment.

There is tragedy too. Some cannot shake off the past and eventually choose to kill themselves.

One of the most poignant scenes comes towards the end of the book. Elisabeth remembers the day when she went to the hospital with her mother. The doctor insisted he needed to know something about the family history to diagnose her properly. What illnesses were there in the in the family? Elisabeth tells him that she doesn’t know. “They all died young and healthy.”

“Maybe there are family members you could ask,” the doctor insists. “Oh yes”, Elisabeth says, “of course, we could hold a seance.” The doctor does absolutely not understand why she is so unhelpful and finally gets a social worker who scolds him. “It’s a second-generation case, doctor.”

This last scene is so important because it shows that even in Israel, some might have forgotten that whole families, several generations of them, were wiped out.

I don’t understand why this or other books by Lizzie Doron haven’t been translated into English. It’s a massive omission. This book is so beautiful and important that everyone should be able to read it. Especially if they are interested in the Holocaust and Israel.

In later books, Lizzie Doron focusses more on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I’m very keen on reading them as well.

Here’s a very short video in which she talks about how she experiences the lockdown in Tel Aviv and her fear of dictatorship.

Literary Witches by Taisia Kitaiskaia and Katy Horan – A Collection of Magical Women Writers – A Post a Day in May

Taisia Kitaiskaia’s Literary Witches – A Collection of Magical Women Writers, illustrated by Katy Horan, is similar to We Are Artists, the book I wrote about two days ago. Only this time, it’s not women artists but writers from around the world that are celebrated.

In thirty chapters, Kitaiskaia and Horan pay homage to as many writers. Some like Emily Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Toni Morrison are well known. Others, like Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad or Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, might be a little less familiar. Or, at least, I didn’t know them. The wide range allows many readers to discover new names.

Here is the Table of Contents.

The biggest difference between this and We Are Artists is the way it is presented. The biographies are only one paragraph long and not seven pages like in the book about artists. The illustrations also depict the women and something that symbolizes their writing.

Additionally to the biographical paragraph, you find, on the same page, three fictional paragraphs, inspired by the authors. You could call them flash fiction pieces. They are dreamlike explorations of the writer’s consciousness.

What I liked best are the illustrations. I think Katy Horan is terrific. And I also find the biographical paragraphs useful, especially because there’s also a list of the most important works of the authors.

To give you a better idea I’ve chosen three chapters that should help illustrate the book.

Virginia Woolf’s chapter

And Shirley Jackson

And Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad

Literary Witches was published in 2017 and I think I’ve had it since then. I pick it up quite frequently as I like it very much. It’s not the kind of book that I read from beginning to end, more one that I browse.

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson – A Canadian Novella – A Post a Day in May

Hetty Dorval is Canadian author Ethel Wilson’s first novel, or novella. It was published in 1947. I came across this book on Heavenali’s blog who reviewed the Persephone edition.

The book, which is mostly set in British Columbia, tells the story of how Frankie Burnaby fell under the spell of a mysterious stranger, Hetty Dorval. The story, told in first person by Frankie herself, begins when young Frankie, an impressionable schoolgirl, meets the elegant, beautiful, and charismatic Hetty Dorval. Mrs Dorval has bought a cottage, far off any other houses, and lives there alone with a housekeeper. Hetty who tells Frankie that she doesn’t really like people visiting her, nonetheless, invites Frankie to her house, where she gives her tea and sings for her. Before Frankie leaves, Hetty makes her promise, not to tell anyone. It won’t take long until loyal Frankie gets in trouble because of this. Her parents find out and forbid her to ever visit Hetty again. They won’t tell her why but it’s clear that Hetty has a reputation.

After this initial meeting ends so abruptly, Frankie doesn’t see Hetty anymore and shortly after, Hetty moves away. But that’s not the last Frankie or the reader have heard of Mrs Dorval. Over the next years, Frankie and Hetty will cross paths several times. Every time, Frankie is a little older and every time, she sees more clearly what kind of person Hetty Dorval is. Soon there’s nothing left of the early enchantment but total disillusion.

Hetty Dorval is a short novel. It is flawed but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment. Hetty is a fascinating character. She’s a free spirit but, sadly, also painfully narcissistic. I enjoyed seeing how Frankie’s perception of her changes over the years.

What I liked the most about this short book (just over 100 pages) were the descriptions of the landscape. Most of the story takes place in British Colombia, at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers. Young Frankie is often on horseback and explores her surroundings. I had another picture of Canada in my mind. Not one where sage-covered hills abound. The way Ethel Wilson describes it is so beautiful.

Here’s a short quote that illustrates this. It’s taken form the end of the book. Hetty is speaking.

“Do you remember that mare I had in Lytton? Juniper? Wasn’t she a beauty? Sometimes when the moon was full I used to saddle Juniper and ride at night down to the Bridge, and across, and up to the Lillooet road and off into the hills. And Frankie, it was so queer and beautiful and like nothing else. Though there was nothing round you but the hills and the sage, all very still except for the sound of the river, you felt life in everything and in the moon too. All the shapes different at night. And such stars. And once in the moonlight the geese going over. I remember the shadows the moonlight made on the ground, great round sage-bushes all changed at night into something alive, and everything else silver. And once or twice the northern lights – yes, really. And the coyotes baying in the hills to the moon – all together, do you remember, Frankie, such queer high yelling as they made, on, and on, and on?” (p.105)

What also seems worth mentioning is Ethel Wilson’s knack for ominous sentences. I can’t explain this in detail as it would ruin the book but in one case, she uses it to foreshadow and in another to hint at a possible tragedy in a character’s life. The result is uncanny.

Overall this was a unique and enjoyable reading experience.

Black Car Burning by Helen Mort – Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Blogtour

My second book for the Dylan Thomas Prize Longlist Tour was written by acclaimed poet Helen Mort. Black Car Buring is her first novel.

What a harsh beauty this book is. As harsh and as beautiful as the location it’s set in – Sheffield and the surrounding area, notably the rocky Peak District, a climber’s paradise and hell.

Sheffield sounds like a place with its own very special challenges, notably in some of the less affluent quarters, where people try to cohabitate with people from different cultures. The lack of trust, an important theme of the book, makes their life together very difficult.

Sheffield is the city where the notorious Hillsborough disaster took place. During an association football match at Hillsborough Stadium, on 15 April 1989, the stadium collapsed, crushing 96 people. At the time, when this novel is set, 2014, the inquiry into the disaster is taken up again. The disaster is central in the book as some of its characters have been deeply traumatized by it.

The story centers on four main characters, Alexa, a young police community support officer, and her climber girlfriend Caron, Leigh, another climber, who is drawn to Caron, and finally Pete, who works with Leigh. Pete is a former policeman who left the force because of the Hillsborough disaster during which he was present. Watching helplessly how people were crushed and slowly suffocated scarred him for life.

Alexa and Caron are in an open relationship which did work before but Caron is withdrawing more and more. She’s not only a passionate but a compulsive climber, tempted to take great risks. Her biggest goal is to climb Black Car Burning, one of the most difficult rocks to climb.

The characters are all climbers but very different ones. While Caron looks for risky challenges, the others, while still adventurous, are far me careful. They all react differently to the landscape around them. Not only the rocks and mountains but Sheffield and it’s districts.

This is an intriguing book, it’s fascinating to see these people navigate the landscape and their relationships and how these mirror each other.

The most intriguing passages of this novel, the ones that show us Mort is a poet, are the page-long chapters written in first person, which we find between most of the other chapters. The writing is luminous and shines like Mica. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking but then soon discovered – it was the landscape itself that was given a voice – parks, streets, rivers, rocks, the city and its surrounding landscape, ever present, are observing and talking. Those passages are stunning and beautiful.

Here’s an excerpt from an example titled The Trees:

At night the trees call to each other across the roofs of the houses. There are so many, but there are never enough for an army. Some of them are splayed and ancient with voices like church doors. The saplings sound like bicycle brakes on a wet day.

Black Car Buring is masterfully written, poignant, and topical. It treats themes like social injustice, trauma, relationships and the way people deal with landscapes and cities, with sensitivity. It paints a portrait of contemporary Britain that manages to convey both challenges and beauty.

Thanks go to Midas PR for a free copy of the book.

The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so there are poetry collections nominated as well as novels and short stories. The other 11 books on this year’s longlist are:

  • Surge, Jay Bernard
  • Flèche, Mary Jean Chan
  • Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy
  • Black Car Burning, Helen Mort
  • Virtuoso, Yelena Moskovich
  • Inland, Téa Obreht
  • Stubborn Archivist, Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton
  • The Far Field, Madhuri Vijay
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
  • Lot, Bryan Washington