A Place to Die: An Inspector Georg Büchner Mysteryby Dorothy James
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Eleanor and Franz Fabian arrive from New York to spend Christmas with Franz's mother in her sedate retirement home in the Vienna Woods. Their expectations are low: at best, boredom, at worst, run-of-the-mill family friction. But when the wealthy, charming Herr Graf is found dead in his apartment with an ugly head wound, the Fabians are thrust into a homicide investigation. Some residents and staff have surprising connections to the dead man, but who would have wanted to kill him? Inspector Büchner tracks down the murderer against a backdrop of Viennese history from the Nazi years to the present day. Witty, suspenseful, lyrical, this is a literary whodunit that will keep you guessing till the last page.
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A PLACE TO DIE is an intriguing story set in Austria, reminiscent of a good English mystery. I just finished reading it last night, and am already missing the characters. At first I was attracted to the book because it was set in Wien (Vienna) - I adore Wien. But then as I "visited" with these folks night after night (reading a little in bed each night), I grew terribly fond of them. I was particularly rooting for American Eleanor Fabian, a woman of great depth who deserved much more in life than her annoying husband provided. I'm passionate about marriage and devotion in real life, I believe that once married one is duty-bound to stay married and devoted to each other, unless there's something truly awful going on. But Dorothy James convinced me otherwise with Eleanor. I enjoyed getting to know the other characters in the Haus Im Wald, too. Each was colorful, deliciously unique, and memorable. Inspector Georg Buchner is a fun lead, likeable as well as clever. Ms. James' vivid scene painting placed me smack dab in the middle of winter in Austria, and I felt as if I knew the Haus intimately by the end of the book. (I also craved Kaffee und Kuchen many times during the characters' dining events!) As people start dropping dead in the Haus im Wald, the tension builds. But never did Ms. James relinquish her literary approach to the situation, providing a steady source of introspection balanced with action and character development. The ending is most satisfying - a delightful and unexpected villain is revealed - and some of the sexual twists and innuendos were most surprising and added a bit of spice to the story as well. Ms. James writes smoothly, with no annoying typos or needs for extra editing which seems to be more and more prevalent these days when books are converted to Kindle format. This book was beautifully formatted and of very high caliber. I recommend this complex, highbrow-yet-addicting story, and look forward to future works by Dorothy James.
This murder mystery takes place in an assisted living facility, where an increasing number of the elderly live out their days. In some ways, the horror of murder and death itself was muted as most of the "inmates", as James calls them, expect to die under the roof of the Haus im Wald (House in the Woods). In essence, death wasn't unusual; murder was. One act of violence throws a suspicious hue to all of the "natural deaths" and illnesses that follow, tempering the reader's interpretation of the events that unfold. The sense of despair, late romances, and attempts to live and retain some sort of control reminded me greatly of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, though these characteristics of the aging were intensified and expanded upon in A Place to Die. Due to their isolation, they often forget about the outside world even as they themselves are forgotten, and this novel captures all of the emotions and struggles that come with that and the difficulty in retaining one's independence as age, infirmity, and strong-willed caretakers attempt to stay one's hand. At certain points, my frustration with the matrons of the facility was almost unbearable, perhaps because such highhanded figures do actually exist. As the book shifts between three points of view, and about a dozen suspects are introduced, my initial fear was that of mass chaos as I attempt to remember who everyone is. Many of them begin as caricatures of themselves, stereotypes of the youthful old man, the crotchety gentleman, the nagging fishwife, and the long-suffering husband. What happens as the novel progresses is that we see depth and human emotions that give each a distinct persona in the mind's eye, thus making it much easier to keep track of the many goings-on over the course of a mere four days. As a murder mystery, the novel succeeds in keeping the reader terribly confused. There were many points in the story where I pointed a finger at one potential murderer or another, especially as certain truths are brought to light, but then something else would occur to direct the blame elsewhere for another chapter or two. The final reveal was almost anticlimactic, but everything was explained in such a way that I still found it satisfying. With little to no background in German, it took a while to get used to the insertion of certain phrases and the use of German titles ("Frau" and "Herr"). That in itself was fine. There were a handful of sentences in the book that are a bit awkwardly worded, and the same verbs for speech are often repeated, but as a whole, the text flows comfortably and allows the reader to become engrossed in the story without frequent verbal tics getting in the way. For instance, the overuse of the word "said" only came to my attention when I started deliberately looking for it. This novel does what a good murder mystery should: it keeps your head turning from one direction to another as you try to piece together the real story, only to fail. What sets it apart is that it also achieves what many murder mysteries don't: solid characterizations that humanize the various players and bring them to life.
Dorothy James' engaging novel involves the efforts of a Viennese police detective and a middle-aged American "Miss Marple" to solve the murder of a retirement home resident in Austria's famed Vienna Woods. James populates her murder mystery with interesting characters and places them in an unusual setting. Her inclusion of incidental details creates a world so rich that I felt like I, myself, was a visitor in the "House in the Woods." She cleverly weaves these details (for example, the difference between rooms with and without carpeting) into the story in subtle ways to illuminate both place and character, and to reinforce psychological themes of the book. Her characters and the world James creates for them were central to my enjoyment of this book. Residents came to life as distinct and often quirky individuals. Getting to know each one was a treat. I often thought, "I know someone like that." Amazingly, James creates these highly individualized personalities by describing only small details and brief interactions. Inspector Georg Buchner, of the book's subtitle, seems an interesting and pleasant enough man. However, I found Eleanor Fabian, who views herself as a would-be Jane Marple, the more sympathetic and ultimately the more interesting character. As I got to know her hopes and concerns, her delights and frustrations, I came to care about her as a person. I hope she reappears in future books in the series. James' handling of the murder investigation deepens interest and suspense. The solution to the mystery seemingly becomes more elusive with each new revelation as we (Inspector Buchner, Eleanor, and I) get to know more about the residents of this retirement home, their histories, their secrets, and the history of Vienna itself. While the clever "who-done-it" structure of this mystery will appeal to all ages, James' insights into concerns of aging will especially resonate with "aging baby-boomers." Her characters confront issues of independence, loneliness, physical and mental decline, and uncertain finances in thought-provoking ways, but she adds enough optimism, determination, and humor to keep the story from becoming depressing. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery novel with greater depth than the usual quick read.
I'm writing a murder mystery set in Vienna, so I googled "Vienna mystery" to see what else was out there. Up popped this wonderful book! The characters are very well drawn, some endearing, others repulsive.The book takes place in the present during a short period around Christmas, but because it is set in an old-age home, the author is able to weave in Austrian history all the way back to pre-World War II times. The plot is ingenious but completely plausible. One thing I really like is the double meaning of the title: it seems to relate not only to the home but to the personal life of Eleanor, the main character. The Austrian detective is someone I want to get to know better - reminds me a bit of Kurt Wallander. Can't wait to read the sequel!