By Gary Kriss
First, I’m going to let J. Sydney Jones use his own words to give you the nitty-gritty about his just-published novel, THE SILENCE (Severn House), the third of his Viennese Mysteries:
Vienna, 1900. Lawyer and private inquiries agent Karl Werthen is puzzling over the high-profile suicide of a city councilman–former client, next in line to Vienna’s powerful Mayor Karl Lueger, and the last man Werthen would think capable of suicide. Werthen, however, has little time to ponder, as he is summoned by wealthy industrialist Karl Wittgenstein (father of the future philosopher Ludwig) to find his oldest son, Hans, who has gone missing. Werthen soon discovers the whereabouts of the musically-minded Hans, and the case appears to be solved. But appearances are deceiving, and a simple missing person’s case soon leads back to the councilman’s suicide. Werthen—once again ably assisted by his wife, Berthe, and real-life father of criminology, Dr. Hanns Gross—journeys into a sinister web of deceit and violence that threatens not only his life, but also the very heart of the city and the empire.”
My turn! Oh, and if you don’t like spoilers, stop reading immediately because, throwing caution and convention to the wind, I’m about to reveal the person who’s responsible for all the above, as well as for some other heinous happenings in old Vienna, as recounted in Jones’s other books in the series.
The Pope did it.
Yes, THAT Pope.
OK, maybe not that Pope—Leo XIII, the occupant of St. Peter’s in 1900. If you want to split hairs, it was Paul VI, but, hey, he was still a Pope and the fact that he was only 3 years old in 1900 only adds impact to the book.
Don’t believe me? Fine. How about PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, which just gave THE SILENCE a glowing star review? Or how about KIRKUS REVIEWS, which included THE SILENCE on its “10 Thrillers to Watch for This Fall” list? What do you think about that? Huh? Well, I’ll tell you what Syd Jones thinks about that.
“Jubilation and fear,” the California-based Jones says. “It’s always nice to be praised for hard work you’ve done, to have somebody else appreciate what you’ve spent so long writing. But writers are a superstitious lot, as you know, and starred reviews do not necessarily translate into starred sales. But hey, I am most definitely not complaining about the pre-pub attention that THE SILENCE has gotten. It’s the third in the series and I honestly feel they are getting better book by book.”
Strangely, neither these reviews mentioned the Pope, although they did cite Jones’s gift for creating setting and place, something that his first novel, THE EMPTY MIRROR, demonstrated and his second, REQUIEM IN VIENNA, confirmed.
“My Vienna novels are certainly heavily dependent on setting,” which, Jones says, is “bigger than mere place or location” and which “includes time in its broadest and narrowest senses.”
“It’s not just Vienna that is at the center of things, but that amazing, bubbling, schizophrenic place (at once revolutionary and stodgy) that is Vienna 1900,” he continues. “And the ‘place of place’ or of setting in my fiction is absolutely central,” explaining that this comes from “years of living in the city and from further years of researching the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna.”
“I attempt a bit of time travel in each of the novels,” Jones confesses. “I am in the time and place. I surround myself with visuals of Vienna 1900, listen to its music while I write, read the words of fiction and nonfiction writers of the time, keep a timeline of historical happenings handy. I personally like thrillers where the spirit of place is at work.”
Given his preference, it’s not unusual that for Jones setting and place “take almost equal billing” with character and plot. “Setting is often the starting point not only for plot, but also character in my work,” he says. “Sometimes it is impossible for me to separate these elements. If you’re writing a contemporary setting, there’s so much that can just be taken for granted. I mean, you’re not going to describe in detail how to open a car door, get into the driver’s seat, insert the key in the ignition… We know these things. We live them every day. With a historical setting, all bets are off as to what folks know or don’t know. Now, all the writing experts are going to advise against going all travelogue in historicals. They say to just get on with things with a modicum of background detail. Well, they’re the experts not the writers. For me, the trick is to give the reader a page-turner at the same time as I build characters who will go the long haul of a long series, and as I also fill in the historical background of the period, the manners, the dress, the food. I am nosey; I assume my readers are, too.”
What about those readers? Don’t they need to be acquainted with fin-de-siècle Vienna to appreciate Jones’s novels? “I fill in the historical/cultural background in each book,” Jones says “But I try to stay away from the obvious. No previous knowledge of the setting is necessary, and each book is basically free standing.”
Free standing, perhaps, but connected through lawyer/investigator Karl Werthen, Jones’s key character, who is aided by his wife Berthe and by criminologist Hanns Gross. The combination works, although not quite like Jones originally intended.
“Werthen started out as something of a fop, intended to be a foil to the real life father of criminology, Hanns Gross, who was initially meant to be the primary protagonist in the series,” Jones recalls. “But Werthen just elbowed his way to center stage from the very first pages of his appearance in book one, THE EMPTY MIRROR. He is one of those happy serendipities that pretty much came full grown on the page, back story and all.”
Serendipities happen, but verisimilitude is carefully planned. This includes drawing on and fleshing out real people since, Jones notes, “the central conceit” of the series is that Werthen “takes on cases involving the famous and infamous of Vienna 1900.” There are plenty to choose from: Karl Kraus, Fin-de-siècle Vienna’s most penetrating observer, said its streets were “paved with culture.” (Incidentally, Jones says the acerbic Kraus is the person he’d most like as a companion in one of by-gone Vienna’s coffee houses, “not because he was particularly clubbable or even likeable, but he knew where the bodies were buried in Vienna 1900.” So Kraus crops up regularly in the Vienna books where, Jones says, “he serves exactly that function for my investigative duo.”)
As for more widely known figures, THE EMPTY MIRROR features the influential symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, complete with his famous forays into the erotic, while REQUIEM IN VIENNA centers on the great composer/conductor Gustav Mahler, and doesn’t neglect his darker side. THE SILENCE focuses on the Wittgenstein family—Jones was indelibly influenced by the philosopher-genius Ludwig Wittgenstein who, as a boy, plays a critical role in the book—as well as the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together for me, the act of using actual historical figures as characters in the novels,” says Jones, who confesses that his focus can become an obsession. “First of all it takes a whole bunch of research and I find an inherent pleasure in research—it’s my way of malingering. It’s almost like writing but with none of the pressure of creation. I love the challenge of finding a new aspect to a known person, of having to take givens and create novelty. Not much of a downside for me.”
Still, Jones admits that he used to fret over the use of actual historical figures in his fiction and how he portrayed them, especially when descendants were still alive. However, he resolved the problem and suggests that other writers “working in historicals” to take the research seriously, but always remember the publisher’s disclaimer at the front of the book: ‘This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.’”
Jones categorizes THE SILENCE as part of a “mystery series.” Does this make it different from a thriller or does he use the two terms interchangeably? His response is emphatic.
“I absolutely distinguish between the two genres,” he declares, “and attempt to blend them in each of my books. The Viennese Mysteries begin as a mystery, a whodunit or what happened and why. But this morphs into a thriller later in the book, as the mystery leads to something large and sinister that must be stopped from happening, the classic thriller trope.”
In addition to his Vienna novels, Jones also writes non-fiction. His VIENNAWALKS is a classic guidebook to the city and THE MAN IN THE TOWER: AND OTHER TRUE TALES FROM A VANISHED EUROPE, a memoir of his 20 years as a writer and correspondent in Vienna has recently come out as a Kindle book. And while he has no desire to completely abandon book length non-fiction, Jones volunteered that “like most other fiction writers, journalism and work-for-hire is something I would gladly give up.” He estimates that right now he writes “about 300,000 words for hire in order to do the 100,000 words I love to write.”
And if he sticks to plan, Jones has a lot of 100,000 word blocks ahead. “The story arc of the books takes us to the death of Gross in 1915, and I hope to keep writing one a year, with each title also progressing a year,” he says, adding that the first book was set in 1898. “Math and the whims of the publishing industry will account for the total number of installments.
At the moment, Jones is halfway through the fourth book in the series, which concentrates on literary Vienna and which features, in part, Felix Salten, the author of BAMBI, and the playwright Arthur Schnitzler. One of Schnitzler’s novellas was the basis for his Stanley Kubrick’s film, EYES WIDE SHUT and Freud referred to the writer as his “doppelgänger.”
This fourth book begins as a murder mystery involving the killing of a prostitute,” Jones says. “Soon, however, the reader is in the land of espionage, 1900 style.”
And again, the Pope figures in.
But since we’re at the end of the article, it’s safe—and completely within the sacred canon of Thrillerism—to let Jones reveal the how.
“I, along with thousands of others in St. Peter’s Square, received a plenary indulgence from Pope Paul VI,” he says. “There was a sort of magic to the moment, not because I am Catholic or even very religious, but because it was Easter Sunday, 1969, and it was my twenty-first birthday. It was like a new beginning for me.”
Actually, Jones was spending the year in what he refers to as “stodgy old Vienna;” Rome was an Easter side trip. Yet that brief encounter with “a slim speck of white far away on a balcony over the enormous piazza,” an encounter that “erased all previous sin in my life” and gave him a “fresh start, was emblematic of what Jones terms “the annus mirabilis in my life.” The South Dakota farm boy who went to Vienna intending to become a lawyer left there “knowing I would be a writer.”
And 40 years later a city councilman in Vienna would commit suicide and Hans Wittgenstein would go missing.
J. Sydney Jones is the author of a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, including three novels of the Viennese Mystery series, The Empty Mirror, Requiem in Vienna, and The Silence. 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 has 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.
To learn more about J. Sydney Jones, please visit his website.