Beer is clearly a talented crime novelist because this debut, the first in a new historical detective series, both thrills and charms. The Second Rider introduces Inspector August Emmerich and his side-kick, those are his words, Ferdinand Winter of the Vienna police force. They are characters that readers will come to love as the series progresses. There is a rich vein of Austrian crime fiction in translation but most of it is set in a contemporary environment. So I haven’t read anything that is remotely like this novel before. The Second Rider is set in Vienna in 1919, the First World War is over but the city is run down and crime ridden, semi-lawless. Few writers reimagine time and place with such vivid and convincing detail – this surely must be as the city was one hundred years ago. That richness of setting is an added dimension to the novel. This is a very satisfying layered mystery grounded in the issues of a post-war society. A hunt for a cunning killer and a desperate motive, a secret that most people don’t want to see the light of day.
This novel opens with a murder but the first few chapters are subtly worked, the nuanced relationship between the characters is developed and a couple of misdirections actually help to establish a playful tone. The beauty of that is that is the darkness has a greater kick when it comes, and it does come!
The title is a reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, with the second rider being war. War overhangs everything in this novel; the effect it has on soldiers and those left behind, how war does not end on the day the guns are silenced. Beer questions whether any returning soldier, in this case the victims, the killer and Emmerich the policeman, ever really leave the battlefield behind? It’s a theme she tackles as well as any literary novel on the subject (Pierre Lemaitre’s The Great Swindle comes to mind). Soldiers return shell-shocked, maimed, psychologically damaged and excluded from a life that gone on in their absence. The people of the city all suffer; the rich are humbled, ordinary people starve and freeze in the cold, illness strikes (worst of all, the 1919 influenza outbreak). A few profit from the misery, the black market is the only thriving economy and people are dying because of it.
That is why Inspector August Emmerich and Ferdinand Winter are following Veit Kolja, racketeer and smuggler. But before that, on this cold November night, Dietrich Jost hears voices in his head: “Jost, Private Jost”. He disoriented, Jost isn’t entitled to a war pension, his condition is described as hysteria, he’s homeless but really he’s still in Galicia reliving the war, it’s a living death. He dreams of emigrating to South America and a new life. “Jost, Private Jost”, as he turns a loud bang and then nothing – it wasn’t in his head.
Kolja, wise to the tail, isn’t heading for a stash, he’s just having fun leading Emmerich into the woods. When Emmerich realises he’s being toyed with he is angry but when he returns to where he left Winter, the boy is missing, he’s found a dead body. It’s probably a suicide but Emmerich is far more fired up than he is by the black-market case. Even though his own family, Luise and her three children, are freezing in their apartment (their father died during the war). Jost was killed by a single bullet to the head, the case should go to the Lieb and Leben Division but Emmerich insists on investigating. No one who knew him thinks that Jost could have committed suicide with a gun. Then a second body is discovered, another apparent suicide, this time a drowning in the Danube, the body count won’t end there. Emmerich’s boss wants him to concentrate on Kolja, no one else believes these two deaths are murders. Rapidly making enemies and with a private life that is about to get very complicated Emmerich works both cases. The questions start piling up: Why did the dead men have the same yellow stains in their mouth? What has it to do with Home Settlement Society? And, What happened during the war that set a killer loose on the city streets? Emmerich has no idea how dangerous this investigation is going to become.
Vienna may be one of the few cities around the world where a tour of the sewers is a major tourist attraction. It stems from The Third Man and the iconic chase of villain Harry Lime. Beer uses the sewers as a nod to Graham Greene but this reveals an older Viennese history; the sewers were home to an underclass – people really did live down there. The underground meeting between Emmerich and Kolja is a memorable one, a sign of the meticulous research behind the novel.
The Second Rider is a dark tale of a serial killer, a man who didn’t want the war to end, but it’s also slyly comic. Much of the humour depends upon the perceptions and assumptions of the characters. Emmerich underestimates his assistant Winter, who he considers to be rich, pampered and useless. Not far into the story he is disabused of his prejudice. When winter takes the inspector home his grandmother, a snob, feeling no less superior for having no money these days, makes assumptions about Emmerich. It’s a comedy of manners derived from the clash of attitudes. Much of the humour around Emmerich stems from his bad behaviour, the chip on his shoulder and his wilful disregard for authority. He reminds me of the younger brasher Montalbano. There are plenty of interesting characters, I liked Hörl, a gnarly old cop, bluff on the exterior, but not without his better angels. A man you might dismiss early on but will have to re-evaluate.
There are no easy comparisons between Beer and other writers but the setting, and the type of story should appeal to fans of Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath and there are echoes of Jonathan Rabb’s Rosa. The Second Rider is excellently translation by Tim Mohr. Inspector Emmerich will be back next year in The Red Woman. That is something to look forward to.
Paul Burke 5/4
The Second Rider by Alex Beer
Europa Editions 9781609454722 pbk Oct 2018