Book Review: "The Empty Mirror: A Viennese Mystery" by J. Sydney Jones

By Patrick Anderson,
who can be reached at
Monday, January 19, 2009


A Viennese Mystery

By J. Sydney Jones

Minotaur. 310 pp. $24.95

At the start of J. Sydney Jones's historical thriller, set in Vienna in 1898, a young woman is murdered and her body deposited in the Prater amusement park. She is the fifth person in two months to be killed in the same ritualistic fashion -- among other things, the killer cuts off their noses -- and a terrified public demands an arrest. Because the young woman had been a model for the celebrated painter Gustav Klimt, presented here as a somewhat unsavory fellow, suspicion focuses on him. Fortunately for Klimt, two men come to his defense, the (real-life) pioneering criminologist Hanns Gross and his younger friend (fictional, as far as I can make out), lawyer Karl Werthen. It is a small irony that Gross often complains that Arthur Conan Doyle has stolen his methods of crime detection in creating Sherlock Holmes, while in fact Gross and Werthen talk and behave very much like Holmes and Watson.

At the outset, "The Empty Mirror" reads like a conventional serial-killer novel: Who is the madman, and why is he cutting off people's noses? But Jones, who has lived in Vienna and written nonfiction books about the city, carries his novel to a more interesting level. The criminal investigation becomes deeply involved with the convoluted story of Emperor Franz Josef and his star-crossed family. At this point, Franz Josef has been on the throne for more than 50 years. His wife, Empress Elisabeth, is known to spend very little time with her husband. Their son and heir, Crown Prince Rudolf, died mysteriously, along with his mistress, at the country estate Mayerling nine years earlier. The official story of the "Mayerling affair" was that the lovers had killed themselves, but there were rumors of murder. Suspicion focused on Rudolf's cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who replaced Rudolf as heir apparent. (In fact, Emperor Franz Josef lived until 1916, and it was Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914 that set off World War I.) During the course of the novel, in 1898, Empress Elisabeth is assassinated by an Italian anarchist.

Jones adds many details that I take to be his own inventions, but among the historical figures that move through the story is Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the pioneering student of mental illness and sexual deviancy. He confides to Gross and Werthen that Franz Josef suffered from syphilis and transmitted it not only to the empress but through her to several of their children, including Rudolf. The illness is offered as a reason for the empress's estrangement from her husband and as a possible cause for Rudolf's alleged suicide.

Gross and Werthen become convinced that at least two of the murder victims were killed because they were threatening to expose the truth about Mayerling: that Rudolf had, in fact, been murdered. The initial suspicion of Franz Ferdinand gives way to the reality that many aristocrats and secret societies had political reasons to want Rudolf dead, mainly that he was too friendly toward Hungary with regard to the uneasy Austria-Hungary imperial duality. They find themselves in conflict with some of the most powerful men in Austria, and their lives are threatened.

Jones keeps his mystery moving along with a good deal of skill, but the greatest interest of the novel lies in its glimpses of the political passions and bizarre occurrences of the era. Take the theories as to why the killer cuts off noses. One, reflecting the widespread anti-Semitism in Vienna, is that these are Jewish ritual murders of gentiles. Another is that anti-Semites have performed the murders so Jews will be blamed. Another is that the killers are imitating American Indians who sliced off the noses of unfaithful wives. Another is that members of the "notorious One Hundred Club," aristocrats with syphilis "who regularly debauched young virgins" -- and who, because of the disease, are in danger of having their noses rot off -- have carried out the murders and mutilations as revenge against the non-syphilitic population. Freud is out of town, or we surely would have heard about the nose's role as a phallic symbol.

Among other fascinating details, we're told that the emperor's younger brother, Karl Ludwig, "a highly religious man, had died of typhus after drinking contaminated water from the river Jordan." We're told that, when Vienna's famous Ferris wheel was opened, to celebrate Franz Josef's golden jubilee, "a working-class woman, Marie Kindl, had hung herself from one of the thirty gondolas to protest poverty in Vienna." We learn that Klimt had society ladies pose for him nude -- so he could see into their souls, he insisted -- and painted their clothing on later. And we meet or hear about various other Vienna notables, including Freud, the composer Gustav Mahler and Theodor Herzl, who has organized a Jewish Congress that will discuss whether his proposed Jewish state should be located in Palestine or Argentina. In recent years, fin-de-siecle Vienna has shown signs of becoming to literary thrillers what 1940s Los Angeles is to noir. "The Empty Mirror," a colorful story that neatly combines fact and fiction, suggests why.

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