Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Ich war Jack Mortimer, 1933
translated by Ignat Avsey
"This man had messed up everything with his death."
Ferdinand Sponer is a taxi driver in Vienna, "about thirty," whose only mistake was to pick up the wrong passenger. Waiting in the taxi rank at the Westbahnhof, his turn comes up, and his passenger directs him to the Hotel Bristol. After some time, he realizes that there are two Hotel Bristols, so he opens up the partition between front and back seat, and asks his passenger which one. Receiving no answer, he asks again, and is met only with silence. Sponer turns on the light inside the cab, looks at the man in the back seat, and realizes that "the man was dead." To his further surprise, since he hadn't heard anything at all, he discovers that the guy had been shot right there in his seat. Sponer tries to tell the police, but panics -- after reporting a fake accident and unable to think straight, he goes through what I can only describe as a serious lack of judgment, and then makes a fateful decision that will make his life a living hell over the course of the next couple of days. Believing that if his passenger fails to show up at the hotel that the game would be up and he would be blamed, he decides Jack Mortimer will keep his reservation at the Hotel Bristol, just for one night. Afterwards, Sponer figures, he can get on with his old life without anyone ever finding out what had happened. But, as we all know, the best laid plans and all that ...
I've seen this labeled as a thriller, and I suppose there are a number of thriller-type elements, but I got more of a noir sort of flavor from it -- the hapless Joe who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, looking for a way out of his predicament only to discover that he just may be trapped by his own choices. The suspense picks up once Sponer decides that he will become Jack Mortimer, and as we discover exactly who Jack Mortimer actually was, all manner of things happen that send Ferdinand's life spiraling out of control. But, as we're told,
"One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end,"and with our poor taxi driver, that just might be the case as he finds himself smack in the middle of a collision course between the past and the present.
Both book and movie are definite yesses. Alongside the main story in the novel, by virtue of Sponer's job as taxi driver, we are privy to the sights, sounds and smells of interwar Vienna as he travels through the city; class distinctions are also nicely detailed here. As a character study, it also works quite nicely -- again, my focus in reading is on people, looking for what drives them to do what they do, and I was not at all disappointed. Evidently, though, my high opinion of this novel isn't shared by a lot of readers, who in general give it an average overall rating mainly because of the plot. Well, this book is a prime example of what you miss when plot and "story arc" are the only things you care about. Trust me, there's nothing average about this book at all -- it's another fine example of an old book that has been largely forgotten, and thanks to Pushkin Vertigo, it's now widely available. Once again I'll say that I do understand that crime from 1930s may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I seem to be encountering a lot of these old novels that are really, really good and which definitely ought to be part of every serious crime fiction reader's repertoire.
Recommended to all crime readers, but most especially to readers who love these old books as much as I do.