Translated by Tim Mohr
Review by Gill Davies
The Second Rider is the first novel in a projected new series by the Austrian writer, Alex Beer. It is set in Vienna in winter 1919. The World War may be over but its horrors persist for the wounded, the hungry, the sick, the homeless and unemployed. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire has left many of its population turning to petty crime to stay alive and feed their families. War widows become part-time prostitutes, ex-soldiers beg on the streets, steal or work for the organised smuggling gangs that operate out of the underground sewer system. Many others dream of emigrating to a warmer, wealthier country and there are predatory companies lining up to take people’s savings while promising a new life and a job in Brazil or Paraguay. Alex Beer deftly weaves this historical material into a plot that takes the reader into the heart of post-war Vienna, uncovering its darkest secrets.
The central character is Inspector August Emmerich. He is assigned to catch black market smugglers, but his dream is to join the Leib und Leben police division and investigate serious crime. While following a smuggler, he discovers a body in the Vienna Woods that the authorities want to label a suicide, but that he is convinced is a murder victim. Against orders, he tries to solve this crime and this leads him into more and more brutal parts of the city. And it puts his and his partner’s lives at risk. Our guide through the darkness is also scarred by the war – a leg wound troubles him so much that he becomes dependent on the newly-marketed wonder drug heroin to stave off the pain. He is also, as the genre requires, a loner denied the comforts of family and home. He is in danger of losing everything he owns and, ultimately, his life. At various points in the novel he is haunted by his experiences in the front line. Thus, tripping over a tree root in the dark the “smell of the dirt and the taste of blood in his mouth sent a quick series of memories shooting through his head. Trembling ground, thundering cannons, splitting helmets, and the most horrible conflict of all: the survival instinct versus military commands…. Must get up. Must go on. Forward. Never give up. Never surrender.” The experience of war is central both to the investigation and to the psychological fracturing of the main characters.
Vienna itself is vividly realised and its bars and brothels are a far cry from today’s tourist city of Mozart and baroque palaces. It is the dark underbelly of the city that we encounter – literally when Emmerich and his young partner Winter follow the Wien river, crawling through filthy pipes and sewers to the smugglers’ secret hideout. It’s a kind of Austrian noir reminiscent of the immensely successful TV Scandinavian crime series, including a serial killer, corruption in high places, uncontrollable criminality and general misery. So, plenty to enjoy here. But more than that, The Second Rider is a gripping read and the historical detail is compelling and vivid. The chaos and collapse of post-war society is a great starting point for criminality and a murder investigation. The victims have been caught in a trap by their desperate desire to escape from Vienna to a better life. And as the murders continue, it becomes clear that they are not random but are connected to other horrific crimes committed during the war.
Despite its historical setting, the novel comfortable deploys some of the well-used conventions of the crime genre and they do work well in this context. The (literally) battle-weary older cop is accompanied by an inexperienced partner, Ferdinand Winter who incredibly has never seen a corpse before. (He spent the war in the army telegraph and communications division.) Nevertheless, as with Reagan and Carter, Batman and Robin, the junior partner is found to have skills and values that ultimately earn him the affection and loyalty of his boss. And as in so many police stories, the institution is venal, top-heavy or stupid (they used to call it “the factory” in The Sweeney) but the individuals who carry out its work are decent and loyal. All organisations in this post-war world are corrupted, even those apparently dedicated to the relief of the beleagured population. Indeed, Emmerich has much in common with the man who turns out to be an arch-criminal. They have a shared history of childhood neglect and similar personalities that have almost by accident seen them adopt positions on opposite sides of the law. There were one or two occasions when I found the plotting a bit contrived and Emmerich’s ability to solve crimes alone and escape from impossible situations sometimes strained credibility. Our solitary hero was also perhaps too frequently the victim of beatings, bad luck and disappointment. But that is the way of the mean streets and one of the best way these days to make a policeman hero credible and sympathetic. Despite these slight reservations, it was an unusual and ultimately satisfying novel that I can strongly recommend.
Alex Beer, The Second Rider, translated by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions: New York, 2018). 978-1609454722, 319pp., paperback.
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