Thursday, April 23, 2015

sneak peek #1 -- coming in May: Café Europa, by Ed Ifkovic

Poisoned Pen Press, 2015
278 pp

arc from the publisher -- thank you!

The subtitle of Café Europa is "An Edna Ferber Mystery," and when I first saw this, I thought "well, there's one I can skip" since crime-solving historical figures aren't really my cuppa. In fact, normally I just won't  read them, but I have to say that I was quite surprised.  I'm still not a huge fan of these sorts of things, but despite my misgivings, Café Europa actually turned out to be a pretty good mystery story.  There are a couple of things I wish the author had done differently, but well, you know -- I'm sort of a persnickety mystery/crime reader (okay, not sort of but full on) so what I see as "could have been better" might be someone else's "cool -- what a great way to do it!".  

Ifkovic has set his novel in 1914 Budapest on the eve of events that will eventually lead to the first world war.  In an effort to make a brief escape from a domineering mother while on a European tour, Edna Ferber has accompanied her friend Winifred Moss to Hungary and the Hotel Arpad.  While they are there, they cross paths with Hearst reporter Harold Gibbon, who is convinced that war and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire are just on the horizon, and he plans to document the end of an era in a book. Of course, while he's there, he is also reporting for Hearst, and he has made a complete nuisance of himself, getting into people's faces asking them all kinds of questions.  Within the Arpad is the Café Europa, a venue where Ferber, Moss and Gibbon meet and watch all manner of people. One particular person catches their attention -- a Miss Cassandra Blaine, whose stuffy but very wealthy American parents have set up an engagement between their daughter and a count.  They are looking to acquire a title while the count's mother is looking for badly-needed cash to fund her pre-Lenten ball gowns. Edna realizes that Miss Blaine is terribly unhappy and arranges to meet her late one night -- but that meeting never happens because (and this is on the back-cover blurb so it's not a spoiler) Miss Blaine turns up dead.  An innocent man becomes the most likely suspect; Edna just knows it can't possibly be him and so starts looking into things.  As she finds out, in this city where anyone and everyone might be a spy, people don't appreciate the questions she's asking.

There are two solid mysteries to be solved in this novel; aside from the plot, however, the author also offers a look at a city and indeed, a Europe on the brink of massive change. Some Hungarians look back to the past as a means of coping, while others are happy to embrace a new modern world free of an outdated, out-of-touch system of government that the Hungarians didn't want anyway.  The author also explores the world of journalism, especially the Hearst style of reportage, where if nothing's actually going on, the reporter here is expected to stir the pot and make something happen or else make something up to create headlines that sizzle. He looks at how Europeans viewed the upstart wealthy Americans who come and spend their money, but don't understand that they're not in Kansas any more -- as an example, wondering why so very few people speak English. It also touches on the status of women at the time, which I was very happy to see.  The book is filled with descriptions that create a sense of place and most especially time (which is conveyed so very well)  -- but personally speaking, the number of combs in a woman's hair, men's styles, types of pastries being eaten, and other minutiae just sort of bog things down and make the story a little longer than it really needs to be. I appreciate that the author has done his homework and wants to embed his readers in this setting, but this is exactly the same issue I had with most of the books by Frank Tallis in his series set in Vienna. Another eyebrow-raising feature here is that the reader is on track for what could be a wowser of an ending, but the way the big reveal at the end is set up just didn't fly with me. The solution is plausible; that's not the problem, but once you read it, you'll understand what I'm saying. On the other hand, I might be the lone stranger here and others may love it  ... as I said, I'm picky. 

I probably will not change my mind about historical figures as crimesolvers, but I do have to say that despite my misgivings, Café Europa turned out to be a pretty good book and I'm glad I changed my mind about reading it.   I really appreciate the fact that the author did not need to resort to blatant gratuitous sex, violence or dropping of f-bombs -- while I'm used to seeing this a LOT, it's actually refreshing when these things aren't there. This is a good, old-fashioned historical whodunit that should definitely appeal to readers of historical crime fiction, although probably not so much to cozy readers.  You do not need to know anything about European politics or the Austro-Hungarian empire to enjoy it -- the author does a fine job of conveying what's going on without making things overly complicated.   All in all -- I enjoyed it. My thanks to Poisoned Pen Press. 

brief sidebar note: 
This is, according to SKYM, the sixth installment in a series, although I'm not quite sure why the author did not choose to write these books in any sort of  chronological order, which to me, would have made a whole lot more sense. 


Lone Star (2009) [set in 1955]
Escape Artist (2011) [set in 1904] [review]
Make Believe (2012) [set in 1951]
Downtown Strut (2013) [set in 1927]
Final Curtain (2014) [set in 1940]


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it