By Jeff Ayers
J. Sydney Jones is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels of the critically acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, The Empty Mirror, Requiem in Vienna, The Silence, The Keeper of Hands, and A Matter of Breeding. He lived for many years in Vienna and has written several other books about the city, including the narrative history, Hitler in Vienna: 1907-1913, the popular walking guide, Viennawalks, and the thriller, Time of the Wolf. Jones is also the author of the stand-alone thriller Ruin Value: A Mystery of the Third Reich (2013).
In his latest stand-alone, THE GERMAN AGENT, it is February 1917. A lone German agent is dispatched to Washington to prevent the British delivering a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson—by any means possible. For this is the Zimmermann telegram: it contains a devastating piece of news that is sure to bring the United States into the war on the side of Britain and her allies.
Having fought in the trenches himself, Max Volkman knows that America’s involvement will only prolong the slaughter of innocents and is implacable in his determination to kill the British envoy carrying the telegram. But when his pursuit of the Englishman leads him to the home of American heiress Catherine Fitzgerald, wife to one of Washington’s most powerful politicians, he is presented with a terrible choice: loyalty to his comrades in the trenches or the loss of the one woman he has ever truly loved.
His decision will determine the outcome of the First World War.
J. Sydney Jones chatted with THE BIG THRILL about his vast work plus the inspiration for THE GERMAN AGENT.
Why the love of Vienna? What appeals to you to write about it in your Vienna mysteries and the majority of your books?
I grew up a small-town boy on the coast of Oregon that was largely populated by loggers and fishermen at the time. Pure serendipity took me to Vienna. I studied there on a junior-year-abroad program in college and fell in love with the Austrian capital as only a first-time lover can, for it was first big city I had ever lived in.
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 a 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.
I stayed on for a couple of decades—with diversions to Paris, Florence, Greece, and Ireland. But I always returned to Vienna. It was where I became a writer. Vienna served as my Paris for the next decades: it was cheap, friendly, accommodating, full of music, and—made neutral by treaty during the Cold War—it was also bristling with spies.
I became an adult in Vienna; my daughter was born there. I wrote and published my first books there. First loves are hard to get over.
I have not lived in Vienna since that late 1980s. In a way, then, writing about the city is a form of relieving heimweh for me, homesickness.
I was recently asked by the Vienna Tourist Board to contribute to a commemorative volume for the 150th anniversary of the opening of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that encircles the Inner City: Vienna’s Champs-Élysées. In that essay, I commented on this vicarious way of connecting with the city of my youth: “Now, residing thousands of miles away from Vienna, I relive my own years there by setting my fictional protagonist off on a stroll along the Ring from the Hotel Imperial to the Kunsthistorisches Museum or on a wild nighttime fiaker ride over the boulevard’s uneven cobbles.”
Why write historical thrillers/mysteries?
I write them because I love reading them. I love researching them. I guess this is a holdover from my early days as a journalist: I like the solid bedrock of historical fact supporting the fictional constructs. I also get a kick out of tweaking history, turning what one historian might call a foible into a strength, and vice versa; writing against the grain and against stereotype.
Do you find it difficult to establish atmosphere for your settings in the past?
With the Vienna novels, not so much. I have inhabited that world for several decades and feel very comfortable about just writing the story and having the feeling—the atmosphere—of the place come alive through the characters and action. If you truly inhabit the world you are writing about, then you do not need to worry about the details. That world comes alive for the reader, as well.
What sparked the idea for THE GERMAN AGENT?
The short answer: A very fine history professor at the University of Oregon. He taught modern European history and it was not uncommon for the students to stand and applaud his lectures. This was during the heyday of the Vietnam protests and campus unrest when such student civility was at a premium. He was the first to talk about the Zimmermann Telegram and directed me to Barbara Tuchman’s excellent book on the subject.
The long answer: I write about that telegram on a post at my blog, Scene of the Crime.
In essence the telegram said: “Make war together, make peace together.”
That was the crux of this message sent in January 1917 by Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington, D.C. What Zimmerman offered was a chance for Mexico to reclaim its lost territories in the American Southwest, simply by allying with Germany in the event that the United States declared war against the Central Powers—hardly a remote possibility, as Germany was set to recommence its unrestricted submarine warfare in a matter of weeks.
In other words, Germany was telling Mexico, Join us, and you’ll get Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico back.
When first reading the telegram decades ago, I found this an incredibly rich scenario. Eventually I got around to inserting a German veteran of the trenches to stop the delivery of the telegram and the prolongation of the slaughter of WWI. He’s a German with a noble mission who does not always act nobly. He can’t afford to. He knows firsthand the carnage on the battlefield.
Do you enjoy writing books in a series or stand-alones more?
I like taking a break from the series books. They are an exercise in long-distance running, while the stand-alones can be a sprint. Just throw it all into this one title and do not save anything for later installments. It gives you the liberty to kill off a protagonist if you need to—a no-no for series books until the final curtain, a la Poirot.
In your book Hitler in Vienna: 1907-1913, could you see the seeds of the monster he would become?
Many of those seeds were planted in Vienna; that was the point of the book. The young hungry artist Hitler learned his anti-Semitic chops from the Austrian zeitgeist—from its mayor, Karl Lueger, who mobilized the working class with his fear-mongering speeches about Jews taking over the city, and from an array of other rather bizarre politicians and writers who put Germanic Aryanism on an imaginary pedestal. That is also why I paired Hitler’s story with that of the Vienna renaissance of 1900 in the book, a movement that made modernism and that was heavily populated by Jewish thinkers, philosophers, composers, and literati. That book very much tells the story of the flip side of genius and malignancy.
Hitler was a product of his Austrian upbringing. But do not get me started with that book—it was quickly bought by a German house in the late 1970s and became part of the historians’ battle at the time, with Germany happy to point the finger of blame at Austria for the corporal who would be fuehrer.
How difficult is it to bounce between nonfiction and fiction writing?
I really do not do much bouncing anymore. I’ve concentrated on fiction for most of my career. I started out in journalism and travel books and this led to my one large nonfiction project, Hitler in Vienna. That book was written in the 1970s but has been much re-published. I churn out a few hundred thousand words a year as a freelancer, ghosting and writing encyclopedia entries, but my book-length stuff has been fiction for a number of years.
What time period is the hardest to write about?
The present day. It will be old news by the time the book is between covers. I find it difficult in this day of information inflation to connect with what will still be the latest thing in a year or two from now, what will be important, what will be simply frivolous.
What’s next for you?
I have another stand-alone mystery/thriller out this spring from Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, Basic Law: A Mystery of the Cold War. It is something of a companion piece to the stand-alone of mine they published last year, Ruin Value: A Mystery of the Third Reich. It seems with my stand-alones I am working my way through the high—or low—points of the 20th century.
Book number six in the Viennese mysteries, The Third Place, is also out in England next June.
J. Sydney Jones is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels of the critically acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, The Empty Mirror, Requiem in Vienna, The Silence, The Keeper of Hands, and A Matter of Breeding. He lived for many years in Vienna and has written several other books about the city, including the narrative history, Hitler in Vienna: 1907-1913, the popular walking guide, Viennawalks, and the thriller, Time of the Wolf. Jones is also the author of the stand-alone thrillers Ruin Value: A Mystery of the Third Reich (2013), The German Agent (2014), and Basic Law (2015). He has lived and worked as a correspondent and freelance writer in Paris, Florence, Molyvos, and Donegal, and currently resides with his wife and son on the coast of Central California.
To learn more about J. Sydney Jones, please visit his website.