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by Alex Beer and Tim Mohr, trans.
Europa World Noir, October 2018
320 pages
ISBN: 1609454723

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is just a year since the First World War ended, leaving Austria, like Germany, in ruins. Once the proud and glamourous capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna is a desperate place, filled with the homeless and the starving, its streets the home to wandering men haunted by their war memories, often suffering from shell-shock, what today we would call PTSD.

One of these veterans is the protagonist of Alex Beer's THE SECOND RIDER. He is police inspector August Emmerich, and he bears his own war wounds, both physical and mental. The mental he seems able to keep under control, but the damage to his leg has left him in great pain, a fact he strives to conceal as he dreads being shipped off to desk duty as unfit. Luckily, as he believes, he has found a solution - a new wonder drug that blunts the pain and allows him to perform his duties normally. It is called heroin. It is an ingredient of children's cough syrup, but also comes in the form of pills, which, he discovers, work much better if crushed and sniffed. He has been detailed to bring a ring of smugglers that has been supplying the more prosperous Viennese with food, clothing, and medicine. He is especially anxious to bring down one Veit Kolja, the head of the operation. Emmerich is assisted, if, in his view, that is the word, by young Ferdinand Winter, just finished his training and hopelessly inexperienced in life. The inspector is also anxious to be relocated to the elite division called Leib und Leben (literally, Body and Life) where the most serious crimes are investigated.

But as a string of bodies are discovered, originally passed off as suicides or misadventure, Emmerich finds that smuggling must take second place to what he realizes is the murder of a group of men who had served together at the front. He is told off by his boss, who wants him to bring down Kolja, and then finds himself a wanted man as a suspect in some of those murders. It is Kolja who comes to his aid, in exchange for Emmerich's overlooking the smuggling and, of course, for services to be rendered later.

This is the first in a series starring Emmerich and Beer is laying the foundations for future appearances by her protagonist. This may to a degree explain a certain predictability in plot development. Few experienced readers of noir police novels will be surprised at the direction the plot ultimately takes. But this should not be reason to give THE SECOND RIDER a pass. Alex Beer has done her research and evokes the atmosphere of a collapsing culture, a way of life, that has been irrevocably demolished. This is, I think, the first book I've read set in the year immediately following the end of the war; it certainly is the first I've read set in Vienna at the time. Post-First World War Berlin is a more frequent venue, but while Vienna and Berlin have their similarities, there are as well interesting differences.

But what recommends a book like this to the contemporary reader? We appear to be living in a period in which disruption is viewed as positive; it might be just as well to take a look at a society suffering the end point of disruption to see where it all might lead. And it is informative to view that scene from the standpoint of a culture different to our own, even in a translation that is somewhat pedestrian.

This volume marks Alex Beer's first appearance in English. A second installment in the Emmerich series has appeared in German. I hope that an English translation will follow soon as I look forward to following its flawed but determined protagonist into the 1920s.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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