Tag Archives: Graham Greene

Murder In Vienna

A review of Murder in Vienna by E C R Lorac – 230313

The last time I was in Vienna, the city centre was knee deep in snow which made an enchanting backdrop to the stunning architecture that graces the Austrian capital. One of Lorac’s strengths as a writer is her sense of place, her ability to convey an impression of the grandeur of the buildings, the delightful expanses of the parks in a few short sentences. I felt I had been transported back, minus the snow.

This is one of the later books in Lorac’s Robert Macdonald series, the forty-second, originally published in 1956. It is set in contemporary Vienna, which had just emerged out of occupied control. However, the vestiges of foreign occupation and the slightly surreal impression of a defeated and once proud country feeling its way towards freedom linger on. There is not the menace that lurks on every page of Graham Greene’s Third Man but, nonetheless, this is not a city that is at ease with itself.

This is another piece of crime fiction involving a busman’s holiday. Macdonald is taking a well-earned holiday to Vienna – not the most obvious holiday destination at the time, I would have thought – but, as is the way with these stories, is soon dragged in to help out in an investigation that results in three murders and two serious assaults.

That Macdonald chooses to fly to Vienna on a Vickers Viscount seems to be a novelty, a fascinating insight into the advances in air passenger travel in the 1950s. The Viscount, the turboprop powered airliner, went into service in 1953. Even so, it had to make a scheduled stop at Zurich. It was there that the chain of events that led to mayhem on the streets of Vienna began.

As is the way with these stories, the central characters in the story are fellow passengers on the Viscount flight, who all seem to bump into each other when they are staying in Vienna. A young woman, Elizabeth le Vendre, who had befriended Macdonald on the flight, is found unconscious, having been attacked in a Viennese park during a thunderstorm. It emerges that a girl wearing Elizabeth’s coat had been menaced earlier. Then a celebrated writer, Walsingham, is killed, ostensibly having been knocked down in a road accident, but later it transpires that he was murdered earlier, and his body dumped so that it would be run over. A chauffeur by the name of Pretzel is also murdered, his death collateral damage.

The murder of a British subject leads Scotland Yard to cancel Macdonald’s leave and detail him to help the Viennese authorities with their authorities. A ubiquitous press photographer, Webster, also a passenger on the flight, seems to be helpful and offers valuable information, although is he really what he appears to be and is his aunt as innocently naïve as she seems?

The plot is engaging enough and the mystery, although not one of Lorac’s best, boils down to a competition to secure the rights to what were considered to be valuable memoirs from the Nazi era. The key takeaway is how valuable the ability to recognise faces is, although it can lead you into trouble. The finale is tense, and it has its moments of humour, particularly in the way that one of the characters protects themselves from the fatal consequences of a savage attack. What I missed, though, was any sense of character development. Only Webster really seemed to come alive on the page.

The Kindle edition does her no favours as it is littered with typos. One for the completist, I would say.

The Third Man

A review of The Third Man by Graham Greene

Although I am a fan of Graham Greene I have never got round to reading The Third Man, a novella upon which he based the film script for the famous film, starring Orson Welles and famous for its haunting zither music. I have never seen the film either and so I had the perfect opportunity to come to this completely fresh and without any preconceptions. Written before the screenplay, Greene claims that it was never intended for publication, but it came out in book form in 1950, after the film’s release.

It is a very atmospheric work, capturing the dog eat dog, hand-to-mouth existence of those trying to survive in postwar Vienna, divided into four quarters by the occupying powers. Paranoia and the fear of betrayal is never far away. Into this troubled city enters Rollo Martins, a writer of pulp Westerns, invited by his longstanding friend, Harry Limes. The novel is narrated by an English policeman, Colonel Calloway, who is serving in the city and has developed a particular interest in Limes.

Although superficially a thriller and Greene stokes up the tension and excitement well, it is essentially a tale of betrayal and the shattering of illusions, a parable of mistaken identities. Martins has hero-worshipped Limes since their time at school but as the story unfolds, the scales begin to fall from his eyes. Limes was a racketeer in a city full of racketeers, engaged in a particularly distasteful, immoral, and deadly scam, supplying adulterated penicillin.

Upon his arrival in Vienna, Martins discovers that Limes is dead, ostensibly hit by a jeep which took a corner too quickly. Martins quickly realizes that the various witnesses to the accident, all well known to Limes, had differing accounts of what happened. Did Limes die instantaneously, or did he have enough lucidity to make the arrangements which benefited both Martins and his girl, Anna Schmidt before he died? Who was the mysterious third man who helped carry the body into the flat?  

The mystery deepens as some time afterwards Martins spots Limes, who clearly had not died in the accident. Instead of being overjoyed by the resurrection of his friend, Martins turns against him assists in his ultimate demise down in the sewer system of Vienna in a thrilling and gripping finale.

As for mistaken identities, Limes is clearly not who he was thought to be and Martins himself, in a foretaste of what was to come, is mistaken for a more established literary writer, Benjamin Dexter. Calloway is often, and confusingly, referred to as Callaghan by Martins, Dr Winkler as Winkle and who exactly is Anna Schmidt? Is she a Hungarian masquerading as an Austrian?  

The final scene, according to the Preface, differs from the film version. Whether such a dark tale of deceit and shattered illusions deserves a more hopeful ending is a moot point. I think it would have worked either way.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Six

Cecil Court, WC2N

One of the famous people to lay their head down in Cecil Court was an eight-year-old music prodigy by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Mozart family rented three rooms between April 24th and August 27th 1764 from a barber, John Couzin, in the Court, although, according to Leopold, the rooms were not as commodious as they would have liked and had no cooking facilities. It is almost certain that Wolfgang composed his first symphony. The composer and music historian, Charles Burney, visited the Mozarts there and after the boy had wowed him with his musical abilities, “he played at marbles in the true childish way of one who knows nothing”. The insouciance of youth!       

A pub, The Angel, in Cecil Court gained some notoriety as a hotbed of radicalism, hosting a public debating society in the 1790s where anyone who had paid the weekly entrance fee could get on their hind legs and spout forth, often views that were considered dangerous if not subversive. The government, fearing an imminent French invasion, cracked down hard on dissidents, passing several Gagging Acts. In February 1798 the authorities raided the Angel and, according to The Gentleman’s Magazine, “the landlord was obliged to find extraordinary sureties, and informed that the licence of the house should certainly be withheld in the future”.

The pub, nevertheless, soldiered on only to find itself implicated, in 1803, in the treason trial of Colonel Despard, the last man to be sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, a fate later commuted to just hanging and beheading. Despard was supposed to have headed a desperate plot to capture the Tower of London and the Bank of England and to assassinate George III. The Angel was to be the rebellion’s command centre, but, as the plot was foiled, it became just a footnote in London’s radical history.

Cecil Court is now known as Booksellers’ Row. Although the first bookselling transaction that can be definitively dated and traced to the Court was made in 1704, the street really became a centre for books at the beginning of the 20th century. One of the employees of Unicorn Press around 1901 was Arthur Ransome, he of Swallows and Amazons fame, who recorded in his autobiography that the Cecil Court firm was always on “very thin financial ice” and “lived under an almost continual threat of disaster”. Also to be found there was Greening Ltd, publishers and stockists of novels of a sensational kind, and at No. 21, Watkins, the oldest bookshop in London devoted to theosophy, spiritualism and the like.

In 1904, the brothers, William and Gilbert Foyle, opened a shop at No. 16 and were so successful that the premises were raided by the police on the suspicion that they were operating an illegal bookmaking operation. They grew to employ their first member of staff, who promptly ran off with the week’s takings, and in 1906 moved to Charing Cross Road.

The Court also became the centre of Britain’s nascent film industry, the newly built office space following redevelopment of the area in 1894, hosting the likes of Gaumont, Hepworth, Nordisk, Globe, Tyler and Vitagraph. The Court brought new industries to London, new skills and the proximity of so many pioneering firms meant that knowledge and expertise was spread around. From around 1907 what were originally one-stop establishments became specialised as the film industry grew in sophistication and popularity. Flicker Alley, as the Court was nicknamed, hosted over 40 film-related companies in the period up until the First World War.   

As the centre of power in the film industry moved during the course of the 20th century, Cecil Court was more often the backdrop to a film or advert. That said, it has a unique place in the development of the British film industry, and the book trade, for that. More importantly, to echo Graham Greene, “thank God, Cecil Court remains Cecil Court”.         

Book Corner – August 2017 (3)

The Stamboul Train – Graham Greene

This is one of the few Graham Greene novels that I had not read before and it seemed the appropriate time to discover it having read Bethany Hughes’ history of Istanbul. The novel, published in 1932, is the first to which Greene attached the label of an entertainment. American readers might know it better as the Orient Express, which was also the name of the film based on it which was released in 1934. I think it is fair to say that it is one of Greene’s lesser works but, nonetheless, is an action-packed and rewarding read.

Long, international train journeys are a bit of a literary cliché these days but it allows the author to assemble a motley crew of characters who, because of the length of their time together in an enclosed space, have time to connect and interact and, as Greene uses to advantage, the stops along the way allow him to introduce new characters and as the train wends its way through the heartland of Europe to its ultimate destination, Istanbul, each new passenger increases the sense of malevolence and danger.

Three very disparate characters start the journey – Dr Richard Czinner whose alias is an English schoolteacher but who is really an exiled communist leader returning to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Carleton Myer, a trader in currants who is travelling to Turkey to seal a business deal, and Carol Musker, a dancer who is going to take up a job as a dancer in Istanbul. Their fates and stories are soon intertwined. Myer feels sorry for Musker who becomes ill during the journey and falls for her charms. Czinner is recognised by a lesbian journalist, Mabel Warren who joins the train at Brussels with her beau, Janet Pardoe. The tension is cranked up when Josef Grunlich, a thief who has botched a raid and committed murder, joins the train at Vienna.

The revolution is botched and takes place before Czinner arrives, leading him to question his purpose in life. Border guards stop the train and arrest Czinner, Grunlich and Musker. The pace of the book hots up with a Kafkaesque trial, escapes, shootings and car chases. I will not spoil the denouement other than to say that Musker’s ultimate fate is never quite revealed and that Pardoe turns out to be the niece of the man Myer is trying to do business with.

Unusually for a Greene novel the heavy hand of Catholicism is absent. Nonetheless the main protagonists engage in periods of soul-searching, trying to reconcile what has happened and their role in the world. The principal them is that of fidelity, to yourself and to others and how you will be remembered and want to be remembered after you have gone. Heavy stuff but it doesn’t really obtrude because Greene is a master story-teller and gets the balance right.

The bigger issues for modern readers are whether Greene is homophobic in his unflattering portrayal of Warren and anti-semitic in the way he writes about Myer. For those who are attuned to spotting any deviation from political correctness, the answer is probably yes. That said, he was a creature of his time. Warren is a fabulously rich, louche character who just happens to be gay but her sexual orientation is probably used to emphasise what a grotesque person she is. As to anti-Semitism, I’m not sure. Most of the stereotypical characteristics of Jews appear in his make-up – shrewd businessman, love of money, monetising everything – but he is kind, caring, considerate – loving, even. Every reader has to make their mind up but it would be a sad day if modern sensibilities got in the way of reading good literature.

And as for sensitivity, J B Priestley took umbrage of Greene’s portrayal of popular Cockney novelist, Q C Savory, thinking it was a bit near the knuckle and Greene, fearing a libel case, had to tone the character down.

Beach Of The Week

Here’s an example of taking away with one hand and giving with the other. I learned this week that the gloriously named Dooagh sands are back, having been swept into the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean in 1984. The loss of the sands – Grahame Greene wrote Heart of the Matter there and Angela Lansbury holidayed at the resort as a child – was catastrophic for the local community, causing its hotels and, more recently, its local shop to close.

Unusually strong northerly winds have deposited hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on to what was previously a rocky stretch of coast line on Achill Island in County Mayo in Ireland. The beach has previous for disappearing and returning, vanishing in the 1890s only to be restored to its full glory forty years later.

How long this incarnation will hang around is anyone’ guess but the 2,500 residents of Achill Island hope it will be there in time to be awarded blue-flag beach status.

If you want to visit it, get there quick is my advice!