Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Place to Die: An Inspector Georg Büchner Mystery (Dorothy James)

Overall: 4.8
  • Plot: 5/5
  • Originality: 5/5
  • Language: 4.2/5
  • Believability: 5/5
A Place to Die: An Inspector Georg Büchner Mystery by Dorothy James

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.
Genre: Mystery
Purchase Links:
Kindle US | UK | DE
Paperback US | UK | DE
Hardcover US | UK | DE
Other Links:
author website

This week's book took a lot longer to complete than I had earlier anticipated, but in the end, every last page was necessary to develop the characters and to advance the plot.

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.

With a background in pharmacy, my senses perked up with the mention of various prescription medications, and I was thankful that the doses were believable, and the risks discussed are accurate. My one bone of contention is that the names of generic products were capitalized. I imagine that something like that wouldn't really bother those outside of healthcare, however, and so I'm letting it go.

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.

(Review copy provided by the author)


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