Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta

The Crooked Maid could be the prose adaptation of a black & white photo of barely post-war Vienna: a gritty and damaged city, but one with a fierce survival instinct. Vyleta adds the odd dash of colour to his novel -- a pilfered red hat, an eerie blue glass eye, the stranger's red woollen scarf -- but they are few. This is a novel that crosses genre lines, sitting equally well on mystery, love story, crime drama, and historical fiction shelves.

Like the city itself, the characters have come through the war years with injuries. Their various physical deformities are merely the visible manifestations; the psychic scars are profound. None of them trusts each other, and we readers don't trust any of them. Vyleta's characters are a hardened lot who have suffered at the hands of both the Soviets and the Nazis.

Anna Beer returns to Vienna at the opening of the book. She is coming home to reunite with her husband, psychiatrist Dr. Anton Beer, whom she'd left years before after discovering his scandalous infidelity. She finds their apartment relatively intact but empty, and thus begins her search. Someone claims to have seen Dr. Beer in the Soviet camps; someone else is sure he's dead. Some children at play find a badly mutilated corpse in a cellar, and Detective Frisch invites Anna to the morgue to see if it might be that of her missing husband. Vyleta's description of the porter is about the best introduction to a morgue I could imagine.
Frisch led her into the building. In the gateway stood a porter's booth. While Frisch signed them in, Anna found her reflection in its glass; the light-green blouse and auburn hair, her lipstick glowing brightly in her pale and powdered face. She had dressed as though she were on her way to collect her husband at the train station; then on to a picnic in the gardens of Sch√∂nbrunn. Behind the glass, the old, pockmarked porter concluded she must be staring at him. He flashed her a grin of yellowed teeth. A half-eaten sausage lay on an open newspaper, looked grey and waxen in the booth's dim light.
The face of the corpse is so battered that Anna tells the detective she doesn't believe it's Dr. Beer, but she can't be certain. For one thing, the corpse has a glass eye, which Anton did not have, or at least not when she last saw him. Staring out from the ravaged, decaying face, the glass eye is a thing of macabre and uncanny beauty.
Anna held her breath and kept staring at the eye. It was very intricately worked, the iris structured into layers, clear amber grains embedded in three shades of blue, each a snowflake pattern radiating from the pupil's central well. In the bright light of the morgue the eye's milky glass had turned transparent, become infused with something like an inner glow. A root system of capillaries spread from the depths of it: tender, light-pink tendrils fanning out towards the surface and the light. The lid that clung to its outer edges gave it a frame of amber lashes, each gently curving outwards, away from the glass. It was a lovely, human eye, alive with an intelligence intrinsic to its design. The dead man watched her coldly, without judgment.
Also returning to Vienna in the same train compartment as Anna is the young Robert Seidel, who had been away at boarding school in Switzerland. He too comes back to a chaotic and unwell household:  his step-brother, Gustav, is a former Gestapo officer now on trial for patricide. Robert's widowed mother rambles around their big house in an opiate-induced fog. Holding the household together is Eva (known at other times to other people as Anneliese), a young, embittered, hunch-backed maid who has a strange connection to Dr. Anton Beer.

Robert's step-father, who died after crashing through an upper storey window (perhaps pushed by a drunken Gustav, although the jury formally acquits him of the murder charge), built up a successful factory before the war with the help of his Jewish business partner, Rothmann. When the Nazis banned Jews from owning property, Rothmann deeded his house and his share of the business to Herr Seidel with the understanding that he could return and re-claim his share after the war, should he survive that long. Now, in 1948, there is a gaunt stranger wearing a red woollen scarf over his tattered coat, and he's watching the big house from a distance. Robert's addled mother assumes that it's Rothmann, returned to make his claim. She pleads with Gustav to "deal with him".  Robert fearfully asks Gustav what he has in mind, and the elder step-brother explains the family's history with Rothmann, and why Mrs. Seidel, originally from the lower classes, holds such a grudge against the Jew.
"Those were glory times in any case; we never had so many servants. Life would have been grand, if it hadn't been for that Jew. Every other day he'd come for dinner, sometimes with his whole family in tow. Father practically fawned on him. It was, 'Try this cigar, Herr Rothmann, I had it sent from overseas,' and, 'Take the good chair, Herr Rothmann, here, by the fire, it's chilly out,' 'Such a delight to see you, you must come back soon,' on and on -- and me already in the police! It was then your mother and I started discussing Party business over dinner. Good God, we had such fun. One time, early on -- I remember it like it was yesterday -- Rothmann leaned over to your mother, very discreetly, mind, speaking under his breath, and instructed her how to hold the fork, 'in a good household.' You should have seen her blanch. I swear, she signed her soul over to the Party and cheered Rothmann's entire race to the gas chambers just for that 'in a good household.' Not that he was wrong, mind. Your mother handled cutlery like she was digging a latrine." 
The end of a war never means the end of hostilities; those may take generations to calm down, if they ever do. People stole, betrayed, and killed to survive the war, and there are always old scores to be settled. Gustav reminds young Robert that nearly everyone in Vienna has skeletons -- literal, figurative, or both -- in shallow graves.
"You know," he finished, patting the basement wall, "she's a little touched, your mama, but the truth is that half the people on this street, they have a Jew walled in their closet. God, how they are hoping the mortar will hold."
After reading The Crooked Maid, I learned that it's a sequel to an earlier novel, The Quiet Twin, which is equally acclaimed. I'm relieved to read that they work just fine as stand-alone books, and I look forward to my next visit to Vyleta's Vienna.

Note:  The painting above is by Kees Van Dongen (1877-1968) and is titled "Corn Poppies".  It hangs in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in the United States, and its subject reminds me of Eva, the crooked maid, in her incongruous, stolen red hat.


  1. Goodness! I thought that was Crumpet, letting the cat out of the bag :-)

    1. Ha! Crumpet's crooked maid is hunch-backed from moving stress. She might as well be muddling through a war. *sigh*


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