Some small crimes have big, big consequences.
When the Vienna police in 1901 seem indifferent to the murder of a young prostitute, Mitzi, her madam, the legendary Josephine Mutzenbacher, turns to lawyer and trouble-shooter Karl Werthen, who finds plenty of trouble. Mitzi has a secret past, and impressive roster of clients, leading Werthen to navigate a dangerous maze of high society and espionage.
That’s the setup for THE KEEPER OF HANDS by J. Sydney Jones, an author who’s used Vienna for a number of novels including THE EMPTY MIRROR and THE SILENCE. He truly knows the place, having lived there on-and-off for decades in between working as a freelance writer in Paris, Florence, Donegal and Molyvos.
“Jones’s masterful fourth mystery set in early-20th-century Vienna …[offers] top-notch detecting and characterizations [that] bolster the intricate plot.” PUBLISHERS WEEKLY starred review of THE KEEPER OF HANDS
What motivated you to write about Vienna at the turn of the century — why is that a great setting for a thriller?
I was first introduced to fin-de-siecle Vienna as a student in that city. I guess it was the work of Klimt that initially caught my attention–he does that for many people. There is an obvious lushness and exotica/erotica to his work that attracts, and Klimt in his personal life is also a fascinating type. Interest in his work soon led me into the entire world of Vienna 1900, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
This was in the ’60s, when Vienna 1900 had not yet become a cottage industry for art dealers or historians, so when I began to research the era, I felt a bit of an explorer charting an undiscovered territory. I feel at home in that age. No logical explanation for it. But there is a great deal of logic in using it as a setting for my series of mystery/thrillers.
The possible cast of characters is enormous; the social/political problems resonate with our own time; and the state of forensic science is such that investigators must use their wits more rather than their iPhones to solve a crime.
Do you find it easier to write about real historical characters, or does their history shackle you a bit to conform to what really happened?
I find it easier now, after already having done so in my earlier thrillers such as TIME OF THE WOLF and THE HERO GAME. I first wrote about Vienna 1900 in the nonfiction work, HITLER IN VIENNNA, a study of Hitler’s youth as a wannabe artist set against the backdrop of the cultural renaissance occurring in the city at the same time, much of it inspired by Jewish intellectuals.
So, yes, there was a bit a trepidation at first using actual historical characters in a fictional setting. But now, after four books in the series, I find it a lark. The characters I use are not mere stage props, but are integral to the plot and often help me find my way through plot complexities. Klimt’s surly energy transformed THE EMPTY MIRROR; Gustav Mahler and his demanding ways enlivened REQUIEM IN VIENNA; the young Ludwig Wittgenstein demanded justice in THE SILENCE; and two literary personages, Arthur Schnitzler and Bertha von Suttner, created a creative polar nexus for me in THE KEEPER OF HANDS.
Why thrillers, and fiction, instead of narrative non-fiction or history? What is it about a novel that can show us more about a place and time, and the events that happened, than a straight historical accounting?
I’ve done it both ways for Vienna. In addition to HITLER IN VIENNA, I have also written two guidebooks to the city. So now I am indulging myself with my first love, fiction.
Both approaches have their own value.
When you first visited Vienna as a student in the late ’60s, what was the moment or place that made you want to stay there for decades and write about it?
After living in Vienna for years, I loved going into a cozy gasthaus or inn on a blustery fall day. I relished the old world feel of the Inner City and some of the more authentic outer districts. Even the formality of the Viennese (at the time) was an enticement. But it was none of these things that provided my initiation, or rather, the opposite of them.
As a student, I frequented a dive of a café near my lodgings in the third district. It was dodgy and not gemütlich at all. A worker joint with a perpetual haze of blue smoke overhead, a zinc bar, and a jukebox on which someone was always playing “Rock around the Clock.” I would take my small orange-covered, graph lined Rhodia notebook and a pocketful of Staedtler HB pencils with me when I went there, order an achtel of gut-burning Vetliner, and imagine I was another Hemingway in the making.
One evening a rather drunken man at the next table asked me what I was scribbling. I humored him–he seemed a pleasant enough type–and said I was trying to wrote a short story about Vienna. He immediately got up, came to my table, and sat down without being invited, breathing rank fumes in my face as he leaned in toward me. “I’ve got a story,” he all but hissed. Then he cast his eyes about the room to make sure no one was watching.
It was early autumn and a warm evening; he was dressed in short sleeves. He quickly pulled up the sleeve on his left arm. There, on the inside of his upper bicep was a black tattoo. It took me a moment to decipher it, for it was in Gothic script. I finally realized that it was the letters “AB”.
I raised my eyebrows; he nodded. An avid reader of thrillers even then, I knew that this was his blood type. It was also his badge: he was a former SS.
“I have stories,” he whispered.
At that moment I realized I was not in Kansas (in my case, Oregon) anymore. I was out in the big world where anything could happen, swept up into the cyclone of history. I remember the frisson of excitement I experienced at that realization. I wanted to keep repeating it.
Some might see your series as a sort of Holmes and Watson set in Vienna, with an early criminologist who’s kind of a genius and kind of a jerk. How fair is that?
First of all, thanks for the compliment; being compared to Doyle is an honor. There may be some echo in Hanns Gross (a real historical figure, dubbed the father of criminology, and a major recurring character in the series) vis-à-vis Holmes, but the comparison ends there.
The trope of sidekicks in fiction goes back at least as far as Cervantes, and my Karl Werthen is no Watson. He is the center of the novels, proactive and as resourceful as Gross in his own way. And his domestic life along with his wife, Berthe, forms a heavy backstory to the entire series.
Where do you see this series going next? Is there a different era that you think is ripe for another series, or are you going to branch out from this one?
I have a story arc that follows Werthen and Gross until the death of the latter in 1915. There will be more stories that take place outside of Vienna: book five, which I am writing now, is set mostly in the province of Styria, around the city of Graz.
Another is planned for Prague, and still another for Budapest. And one that I am very anxious to get to will be in Hong Kong; Gross decides to take on a case that the legendary Holmes is too busy to contemplate.
Regarding another series or era, I am attracted to be the early postwar and Cold War years and also to the time immediately following the Cold War. I have a thriller out this October from Mysterious Press/Open Road, RUIN VALUE, that is set in Nuremberg during the War Crimes Trials. I also have the first book underway in a series set in Vienna and in various locations in Europe in the 90s, just after the Wall came down.
J. Sydney Jones is the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction works, including the novels of the Viennese Mystery series: THE EMPTY MIRROR, REQUIEM IN VIENNA, THE SILENCE and THE KEEPER OF HANDS. He lived for many years in Vienna and has written evocatively of that city in the narrative history, HITLER IN VIENNA: 1907-1913, the walking guide, VIENNAWALKS, the thriller, TIME OF THE WOLF, and in the memoir, THE MAN IN THE TOWER. Jones also lived and worked as a correspondent and freelance writer in Paris, Florence, Molyvos, and Donegal. He and his wife and son now live on the coast of Central California.