I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, translated by Ignay Avsey

Originally published in 1933 as Ich war Jack Mortimer
English translation first published in 2013

Tonight will be the longest, darkest night of Ferdinand Sponer’s life – the night when a passenger is shot to death in the back of his cab. But how is it that he neither heard nor saw the killer? Alone with a dreadful secret, Sponer courses through the backstreets of Vienna, playing out possible outcomes in his tortured mind. And as the fear and paranoia close in, he realises that there is only one thing for him to do…
Twice adapted for the silver screen, I Was Jack Mortimer is a sinister tale of stolen identity, seedy underworlds, and the demons inside our heads. Of the many different sides to a man. And of the almost impreceptible line – all too easily crossed – between good and evil, love and revenge, truth and madness.

Some of you may have noticed that my blogging has slowed down considerably over the past couple of months. It has been challenging to find time to read, let alone write about those books, so content has been a bit sporadic. I’d suggest that this is going to improve as I have amassed a bit of a backlog of books to write about except that the danger is that some of them were read long enough ago that their memory has started to fade. For that reason I’m starting out with the most recent read, though as you will see, it is really more thriller than mystery.

I Was Jack Mortimer was an Austrian thriller penned in the 1930s. It follows a cabby, Ferdinand Sponer, on a terrible evening. He is outside the train station when a man in a heavy overcoat steps into his cab, asking to be taken to the Hotel Bristol. Ferdinand starts driving and then realizes that their are two hotels by that name, turning back to speak to the passenger only to see that he is dead with bullet holes in his neck and chest.

While this could be a promising start to an impossible crime story (an idea hinted at in the blurb quoted above), the book develops quite differently. Lernet-Holenia operates with a relatively small cast of characters, at least in relation to the crime itself. There is little mystery to the relationships of those few suspects to the victim, meaning that there is little for the reader to deduce here. Similarly the mechanics of the crime prove quite straightforward. Our interest then is supposed to be in seeing if he can escape this pretty dire situation rather than working out the truth of what took place.

The problem with I Was Jack Mortimer as a thriller is that it is predicated on Ferdinand experiencing a moment of panic after discovering the body and making some pretty terrible initial decisions. Those decisions place him in a pretty impossible, if contrived, situation prompting further erratic choices, placing him in even greater peril. The results can be quite tense, particularly in the second half of the novel, but the reader will likely be shaking their head and may struggle to find much empathy for Ferdinand’s self-inflicted situation.

Poor decision making is not the only barrier I had to liking this novel’s protagonist. The book begins by showing us how he becomes interested in an aristocratic woman who had been one of his passengers, calling on her repeatedly and waiting outside her home. She understandably reacts uneasily to this attention which reads as stalkerly and obsessive rather than an act of romantic devotion.

Ferdinand is obviously meant to be a morally complex character. This stalking behavior could be read as an example of that, particularly as he has a long-term girlfriend he treats with little consideration throughout the book. Those who follow my blog regularly will know I have little difficulty with books that explore these sorts of darker, unpleasant characters.

What I find problematic here is the way that this obsession subplot is handled throughout the book as a whole. There are some developments late in the story that would seem to vindicate his ignoring her repeated requests to leave her alone and repeatedly pestering her. This is hardly unique to this book – plenty of other works from this period and later take similar or perhaps worse lines – but it isn’t comfortable reading, nor was it all that satisfying on a thematic level either.

While I am on the topic of elements that haven’t necessarily aged well, I should note that there are a pair of characters introduced midway through the book that strike some pretty stereotypical notes. These characters make sense in the context of the type of story being told here but it’s hardly subtle with the male feeling particularly lacking in depth.

All of which is a shame because in those moments where I Was Jack Mortimer works, it can be really quite compelling. The story ticks along at a splendid pace, the situation feeling increasingly wild as the book nears its conclusion. While some of those choices made by our protagonist may have been poor ones, the situation they create is compelling and it is hard to see just how things can be resolved.

What attracts me most to this book though was its sense of place and the tone it evokes so effortlessly. Lernet-Holenia doesn’t achieve this sense of place by description but rather by showing us how these characters live and interact with one another. This book gives us a glimpse of inter-war Vienna with all its social contrasts and the clash between modernity and tradition. There are the wonderfully observed social interactions between Ferdinand and the servants in the aristocrat’s household and hotel as well as the scenes in a gaudy bar where the drinks are dispensed by coin-operation. It was these details, as much as the plot, that I found to be most engaging as I read.

This is not enough of a reason for me to recommend the book to genre fans, particularly as I feel the ending plays a little anticlimactically. Still, for all the frustrations I felt with it at times, I didn’t want to put the thing down. It left me curious not only to try some of the author’s other works should any further genre-related works be published in translation but to also see how this was adapted for film (it was several times) as I could imagine it could be even more compelling on screen.

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