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Basic Law A Mystery of Cold War Europe by J. Sydney Jones By Terry DiDomenico

You might recognize J. Sydney Jones as the author of the Viennese Mystery series. Or you might know him from his nonfiction. Whether you are familiar with Jones or not, you’ll want to check out his latest stand-alone novel, BASIC LAW.

According to Jones, “ex-pat American journalist Sam Kramer is burned out: too many dead bodies, too many wars covered, too little meaning in it all. He’s got a dead-end job at the Daily European as the correspondent in Vienna, where nothing happens now that the Cold War is over. And that’s exactly how Kramer likes it.

“But his private neutral zone is shattered with news of the suicide of Reni Müller, a German left-wing firebrand and Kramer’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend. To his surprise, Kramer suddenly finds himself the executor of Reni’s literary estate—but the damning memoir named in her will is nowhere to be found. Tracking down the manuscript will lead Kramer to the unsettling truth of Reni’s death, drawing him back into the days of the Cold War and showing him the dark side of the woman he loved.”

Jones reports that the idea for BASIC LAW is based on a personal real-life experience. As he tells it on his blog, Vienna in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a haven for spies. Not only were there the expected factions representing both East and West, Austria had a rather large intelligence service of its own. “It’s also vital to note Vienna had a lenient twenty-year statute of limitations against Nazi war criminals. Thus, as with one’s friends and spying, you never knew if your cheery landlord was a former SS or not.”

One day while writing at a “dive of a café,” he realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore when a drunken man approached him, asking what he was writing. When told a short story about Vienna, the man sat himself down, bared his arm and whispered he had stories. It didn’t take Jones very long to realize the man was former SS.

Still Jones was surprised a year or two later when he realized he was being followed. Claiming he did nothing that warranted surveillance, a friend took mere minutes connecting Jones to his politically engaged lady friend and her misstep in Belgrade.

“My watcher stayed with me for another half a year, until I moved on to Greece. Returning to Vienna the next fall, I no longer saw him or sensed his presence. But it was a wake-up call for me. I began to look at the underside of Vienna, seeing the city as not only beautiful, but also treacherous. It was—as with the SS man with stories to tell—an experience that has remained with me, informing all of my writing about Vienna.”

In light of your inspiration, what kind of research did you do for BASIC LAW?

BASIC LAW is lived history. Very little research was needed as I lived in Vienna for much of the time depicted in the novel. I also lived in France, Italy, and Greece—Crete comes in for some nice play in this novel, as I spent numerous happy months there from the late ’60s to the mid-80s. So this was not so much a matter of digging in the archives as is necessary for the Viennese Mysteries, but rather of digging into my own experiences and remembrances. Not that this is an autobiographical work at all, but that the historical events were something I lived through and also wrote about as a freelance journalist. When I use such personal experiences for the Viennese Mysteries they must first be filtered through a historic/linguistic time machine to avoid prolepses.

Who is your favorite character in BASIC LAW?

Sam Kramer is my favorite character in the book, although his old buddy Randall comes in a close second. Randall, the self-confessed global village idiot, almost took over the book. Kramer—I like him. He’s a decent man in a world that is not always known for decency. He is deeply honest, so much so that he beats up on himself for real and imagined failings. He cares. And he’s stubborn; he doesn’t give up on people.

What do you like best about BASIC LAW and what was the most difficult aspect to accomplish in the novel?

I felt like I was really able to deal well with a large cast of characters in BASIC LAW. It was a juggling act and it took me months to get everyone straight. Though the book does not have many scenes in the past of the 1960s, seven of the characters knew each other from that time and thus, I needed to know them from that time, as well, even though such character information was not presented directly on the page. But knowing it helped me build the backstory.

Did you feature a historical figure in BASIC LAW?

Historical figures obviously play a large part in the Viennese Mysteries series, whose central conceit is to take one or more of the luminaries of Vienna 1900 and get their noses bloodied with some sort of brush with the law. In my stand-alone novels this is not always the case. My World War II thrillers, Time of the Wolf and The Hero Game used real characters to a limited extent; last year’s World War I thriller, The German Agent had President Wilson and others as background characters, and Ruin Value, from 2013, also had a cameo of Wild Bill Donovan, head of the OSS. BASIC LAW has no real life historical characters, though the character of Reni is loosely modeled after the German Green Party cofounder, Petra Kelly, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1992.

Do you perceive a difference between your Viennese Mysteries and your stand alones as far as mystery versus thriller?

I am glad you asked this. With most of my novels, even the so-called Vienna Mysteries, I try to blend mystery and thriller. Generally, what begins as a seemingly straightforward mystery morphs over time into a thriller. So for me there’s no difference; it’s a continuum from mystery to thriller.

What excites you about writing?

Getting it right. By that I mean I can come back to a manuscript after several months or to a published novel after several years, forget that I ever wrote it, and think, “This is pretty damn good. Wish I’d written it.”

What are you working on now?

The Third Place is the sixth title in the Vienna Mysteries and is out in England this June, and September in the U.S. It is a prime example of what I was mentioning about my books morphing from mystery to thriller. The title comes from the Viennese saying about their prized institution, the coffeehouse: First comes the home, second work, and third is the café. A famous headwaiter is killed at the opening of this installment, and for a time it appears someone may be trying to kill off the legendary headwaiters of Vienna. But soon my protagonists, lawyer Karl Werthen and real-life father of criminology, Hanns Gross, see that something much larger and much more sinister is afoot, something that threatens the very existence of the Empire.

I have about half of the second Sam Kramer book done and the third in the trilogy outlined. So, BASIC LAW is really the first part of a trilogy of books set in newly united Europe.

I am also working on a middle grade novel, which is a real hoot. My ten-year-old son is working as my “linguistic” advisor, telling me when I am being too pompous. But actually pomposity is okay here, as one of my main characters is J.S. Bach.

What would you like the readers of The Big Thrill to know about BASIC LAW?

This is an entertainment: a thriller and a mystery at once. But it is not a one-handed novel. It demands a bit of interactive reading: I do not spell it all out for the reader. I like him or her to be part of the process, to discover things while reading. Those are the kinds of book I love to read and I think other readers love them as well.


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.

Terry DiDomenico
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