Monday, September 07, 2009

Book review: J.H. Schryer's Goodnight Vienna

In March 1938, the Nazis enter Vienna to widespread acclaim and little overt resistance. Overnight, anti-Jewish propaganda rains down on the populace and begins appearing on shop windows. Katharine Walters, a concert violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic, has a second job at the British Embassy’s passport office overseeing the issuance of visas, a demanding task since many Jews are frantic to emigrate. She also works undercover as an operative for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), otherwise known as MI6.

Her husband Jonathan, a surgeon and fellow agent, is continually sent on dangerous missions by his superior, Captain Henderson. In his absence, Katharine is assigned to watch over Freud's apartment until his visa is secured. Captain Henderson, for his part, has secretly loved Katharine for years but knows he's not free to reveal his feelings. Their close working relationship, and his seeming aloofness, creates an awkward situation for them both.

Alarming news reports come in: agents on active service are being eliminated, one by one. There’s a mole at work within the SIS, making Katharine fear for Jonathan’s safety. One night, her worst fears are realized. The story then flashes back to Berlin, six months earlier, to the point of their first meeting and Katharine’s recruitment into the world of international espionage.

Schryer (pseudonym of authors/historians James Hamilton and Dr. Helen Fry) keeps the pacing brisk and tension level high. The sharply written prose and cinematic descriptions make it easy to picture Vienna at a traumatic point in its history, and the dialogue is realistic and era-appropriate. The authors zoom in on striking images, such as the palatial lobby of the Hotel Imperial, with its polished checkerboard floor and sparkling chandelier. The tragic plight of Vienna's Jews is portrayed movingly, and the paths followed by the Jewish secondary characters exemplify the limited routes open to them.

All the characters have something to hide, as befitting a wartime thriller, but some are as inscrutable to the reader as they are to one another. Despite her career choice, for example, we never feel Katharine’s passion for her instrument. Surprising confidences are shared, viewpoints shift without warning, and one subplot is abandoned mid-story. (Perhaps the expected sequel will wrap up the loose ends?) While historical detail is mostly inserted smoothly, there's some heavy-handed explication: we're told at least three times that Jews were forced to scrub pavements. With the many misplaced commas and a few calculation errors, the novel sometimes reads like it missed the proofreading stage. It's meatier than expected from the short page count, but the miniscule typeface is really too small for comfort.

The most prominent character is actually Vienna itself, an elegant, cosmopolitan city transformed into a place of fear and heightening danger. The authors do a good job expressing the difficulty of living day-to-day when the Hitler Youth roam the streets and attempts at opposition are stifled. The complicated political situation is presented in an easily digestible manner, and it's educational and inspiring to read about the heroism of SIS operatives in 1930s Austria. Despite the novel’s rough edges, those fascinated by the subject, place, and time should find it worthwhile.


Goodnight Vienna was published this June by The History Press (UK) in paperback at £8.99, 192pp, 978-0-7524-4920-3. For more details, see the authors' website.


  1. Anne G.3:50 PM

    So I take it this wasn't the one you mentioned on twitter as keeping you p all night? :D THAT's the review I'm eager to see!

  2. Yikes, that's supposed to be 'UP' all night! Sorry!

  3. Mmm... it's been several decades since I stayed up all night with a book (getting old, maybe!) but I finished reading DeVa Gantt's Forever Waiting in a day. Maybe that was the one. I'll post that review on the blog sometime after it's published.

  4. Anne G.8:50 PM

    Yes, sorry, it was 'read it in a day', not 'kept me up all night reading'. (You're not the only one who may be getting old, I'm afraid). Either one of those is high praise, however, the kind which makes me take notice. I look forward to your review, as always.