J. Sydney Jones’ introduction to Vienna came in 1968, when, as a college student from Oregon, he took advantage of a year-abroad program to study in the history- and culture-rich, but then rather “rough-hewn” Austrian capital. “Other kids my age,” he’s written before, “were off killing and being killed in Southeast Asia; I had a bad back and a high lottery number—4F and a lucky winner....I went to Vienna planning to become a lawyer; I left knowing I would be a writer.” That experience marked the beginning of Jones’ love affair with the old imperial city, a relationship that later led him to live there for most of two decades, pen guide books about the place and, more recently, produce a succession of historical whodunits that recapture Vienna at the apex of its early 20th-century artistic and intellectual fecundity.
His 2009 novel, The Empty Mirror, introduced readers to Karl Werthen (pronounced Vair-tun), a well-off Viennese lawyer and aspiring author who, with real-life criminologist Doktor Hanns Gross, sought to prove that controversial painter Gustav Klimt was innocent in a series of gruesome local slayings. After years of specializing in the “stodgy” field of wills and trusts, Werthen quickly warmed to the greater demands of criminal investigation, going on to ferret out the would-be killer of composer Gustav Mahler (Requiem in Vienna) and locate the missing older brother of future philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (The Silence).
Jones’ new fourth entry in this series, The Keeper of Hands, finds Werthen, Gross and Werthen’s resourceful spouse, Berthe Meisner, mixed up in the seemingly disparate cases of a murdered teenage prostitute and an assaulted playwright. With goading from ill-fated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, these probes eventually lead Jones’ sleuths to both a possible power struggle between rival intelligence agencies and a shadowy figure practiced at cleaning up high-level scandals—permanently.
I had the chance recently to ask Jones, who now lives on the central California coast, about his present and future works.
I’m intrigued by your use of Hanns Gross, the so-called father of criminology, as a sidekick of sorts for Werthen. Have any of Gross’ descendents contacted you with comments or complaints about your use of their famous ancestor?
No descendants, but at readings there are usually one or two professional forensics folks who have come because of an interest in Gross. I really do enjoy writing Gross—his powers of deduction are quite phenomenal, but he is such a jerk. Quite oblivious to the feelings of others. He often serves as a comic foil, but his sad relationship with his son, Otto, is a recurring leitmotif of the books, as well. I am most anxious for the future installment when Gross has a post in Prague and teaches, among others, the young [Franz] Kafka. That will be a fun adventure.
The plots of your Viennese Mysteries start with a cultural luminary or two from the city’s past, be it Wittgenstein, Mahler or Vienna’s anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger. The Keeper of Hands ropes authors Arthur Schnitzler and Bertha von Suttner into its story. Why were those two of particular interest to you?
I was not very kind to Schnitzler in this novel, I fear, focusing more on his womanizing than his art. But I am a great fan of his writing, especially the novel Das Weite Land (translated as The Undiscovered Country). I remember watching a BBC adaptation of his Anatol plays just before departing for Vienna as a student, and they obviously informed—at the very least—my expectations of the city. Schnitzler was at the center of the literary Vienna of the time, and not to give too much away in the plot, his name is also important in the story. His diaries and autobiography, My Youth in Vienna, provide real insight into the spirit of the age.
Bertha von Suttner has long been a hero of mine—she spent her life fighting senseless violence and war. She convinced [Alfred] Nobel to spend his dynamite fortune endowing prizes in the arts, science and peace. That she could forge such a career in authoritarian, male-dominated Vienna is a tribute to her strength of character. Schnitzler and Suttner present flip-sides of the literary life of the time.
Another player here is Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The only thing most Americans know about him is that his assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 helped set off a chain of events that triggered World War I. Ferdinand has been described as eccentric and choleric, and not a skilled leader. But what picture of him did you form from your research?
My Franz Ferdinand is a revisionist creation. I wanted consciously to write against the grain with him, and in some ways I am probably stretching the historical truth. I have made him a sympathetic, misunderstood character.
Most historians depict him as a blustering fool intent on war and trophies; a sort of Austrian Colonel Blimp. He was that as a young man, but his marriage later in life changed him, I feel. It is a wonderful love story: Because the woman he chose was not royal enough for an archduke and heir to the throne, he was forced to make a morganatic union, whereby his wife was not of equal status and his children would not be in line to inherit the throne (by that time there was no throne to inherit, anyway). Ferdinand’s wife was slighted in a thousand malicious and cruel ways by the court chamberlain, [Prince] Montenuovo, himself the result of a morganatic union. Even in death this happened: The archduke’s body and his wife’s were transported back to Austria on separate trains.
The Keeper of Hands further expands the role of Werthen’s wife, Berthe, giving her some investigative tasks. Was this always your intention?
I always intended for Werthen to have a partner who was his equal in a time when there was little gender parity. I liked Berthe immensely from the moment she stepped into Werthen’s life at the little weekend party his parents gave in which they trotted out potential brides for him, the perennial bachelor. Berthe was the friend of one of these intended brides, brought along almost out of pity. But she stole Werthen’s heart when she told him to stop talking so pompously. So, a woman with brains, drive, strength and passion. You going to have her sitting home all day preparing tea?
Berthe was something of a damsel in distress in the series launch, but already in the second book, Requiem in Vienna, she is working alongside her husband and, in fact, saves the day. She grows in each book, and in each book I deliver a bit more of the development of their domestic lives as well: making a home and family together, surviving everyday and more monumental crises. I want these books to be, in part, a chronicle of everyday life in 1900.
So in the company of which famous Vienna residents will we find ourselves in your next novel? And can you tell us a bit about that book’s story line?
I am about halfway through Book 5. It will be published...in the spring of 2014. This one is a bit of an exception in that my major historical characters are an Irishman and a horse—or rather horses. Bram Stoker and Lipizzaners—what more could you want? It also takes place mostly outside of Vienna, in the Austrian province of Styria, Gross’ old stomping ground and where Werthen had his start as a criminal lawyer, as well. A series of grisly murders has the locals blaming the Jews for so-called blood rituals; others think it is vampires at work. Oh, and a major scandal is brewing at the Spanish Riding School regarding the breed line of the famous Lipizzaner stallions.