J. Sydney Jones delivers a memorable turn in his second Viennese mystery
At the dawn of the 20th century, Vienna was one of the largest cities in the world, as well as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A cosmopolitan metropolis brimming with culture, Vienna was famous worldwide for the art, music, literature and philosophical ideals that sprang from the brilliant minds of the city’s inhabitants. This rich zeitgeist provides a lavish backdrop for “Requiem in Vienna,” the latest novel penned by local author J. Sydney Jones. A neatly woven tale of intrigue, murder and artifice, “Requiem in Vienna” brings to life the marvelous sights, sounds and tastes of this charismatic European city circa 1899.
Though fictional, “Requiem in Vienna” sheds light on the real life of famed Viennese conductor and composer Gustav Mahler. An obstinate perfectionist, Jewish-born Mahler stepped on many toes to fight his way up to the prized position of conductor of the Vienna State Opera at the tender young age of 37. Not surprisingly, his ambition, self-determination and Jewish heritage make him a handful of enemies along the way. When a series of accidents begin plaguing the opera house, culminating in the deaths of a young soprano and a member of the orchestra, Mahler’s love interest (and later real-life wife) Alma Schindler becomes worried that these accidents may indeed be sordid attempts on her beloved’s life. She urgently seeks out the assistance of the lawyer turned private investigator, Karl Werthen.
First introduced in Jones’ “The Empty Mirror,” prominent criminal lawyer Karl Werthen, his new wife Berthe and the incorrigible real-life criminologist Hans Gross are called upon to investigate the unlikely string of incidents. But as the investigation proceeds, new suspects emerge around every corner until the trio speculates that not only is the murdering maniac out to get Mahler, but also all the great musicians of the time; including recently deceased Johann Straus and Johannes Brahms. Were their deaths simply accidents? Or was a more sinister force at play? Collapsing podiums, slashed break cables and arsenic- tainted candy are a mere smattering of the attempts on Mahler’s life, and with each frightening incident, Werthen, Berthe and Gross realize that if they do not soon uncover the culprit, Mahler and other musical geniuses of the era will be swiftly and inexorably annihilated. But the question remains, who wants to see this maestro dead? A jealous rival, a crazed lunatic and an anti-Semitic radical are all possibilities to be explored, and Jones masterfully keeps readers guessing with each exhilarating plot twist and turn.
Jones’ intimate knowledge of Vienna stems from the days when he lived in the city as a student, then for many years as an expatriate. Although he bounced around Europe for roughly 20 years, Vienna always held a special place in his heart and he has since written both travel guides, non-fiction accounts and fictional tomes set in the city. His historical inclination toward the cultural renaissance of turn-of-the-century Vienna have led him to focus on this rich period, and well-known figures including painter Gustav Klimt, neurologist Sigmund Freud and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein feature in his books either as main characters or peripheral storylines. All of Jones’ works, including “Requiem in Vienna,” paint a vivid and enchanting picture of this east Austrian city.
From small, scene-setting touches like the description of a traditional Austrian meal of schnitzel and kraut, to larger political and social themes of pre World War I Austria, anyone that revels in a good bit of historical fiction will find the whodunit “Requiem in Vienna” a page-turning delight.
J. Sydney Jones speaks at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16. Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415 or visit capitolabookcafe.com.