This month Pushkin Press launch a crime imprint, Vertigo. The initial titles include Vertigo (of course) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara, and The Master of the Day of Judgement by Leo Perutz. Perutz was last revived in the UK by Harvill in the 1990s and seems a perfect fit for Pushkin. Yet another product of the Austro-Hungarian writing factory (he was born in Prague and lived much of his life in Vienna), he was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig who wrote his first novel (the still untranslated The Third Bullet) while recovering from a wound received in the First World War. Nine of his eleven novels have made into English, however, most recently a new translation of Between Nine and Nine, a novel which takes place over twelve hours, and which I like to think of as the precursor of 24. (According to the Afterword, this was also written as Perutz recuperated from a war wound – as this was two year later, presumably a different injury).
The Master of the Day of Judgement begins not with a murder but with a suicide. Actor Eugen Bischoff leaves the party he is hosting and wanders into the garden, though not before recounting the story of a mysterious suicide:
“It was completely unmotivated, there was nothing whatever to explain such an act of total despair. He had no debts or other money troubles, no love trouble, and no illness – in short the suicide could not have been more mysterious.”
Bischoff does have money troubles – the bank to which he has entrusted his money has collapsed, but those around him, particularly his wife, Dina, have gone to great lengths to keep the news from him. When shots are heard and he is discovered drawing his final breath, it is assumed that his bankruptcy has been revealed to him, and our narrator, Baron von Yosch, is suspected due to a love affair with Dina predating her marriage. Yosch, who has also been wandering in Bischoff’s garden, denies having spoken to him, and there the matter would end were it not for the fact that his pipe is found smouldering next to Bischoff’s body. As the Baron has given his word of honour, it now seems he, too, will have to do the decent thing and take his own life. As Dina’s brother Felix tells him:
“It remains for me to assure you that you are under no obligation whatever to carry out in the next twenty-four hours the decision that you no doubt have already made. I shall in no circumstances inform the court of honour of your regiment of this business, should that step turn out to be necessary, before the end of the week.”
It is not the Baron, but a young engineer, Solgrub, who protests that Yosch is innocent and undertakes to investigate Bischoff’s death. One of the novel’s most entertaining features is the way Perutz uses Solgrub as the ‘detective’ hero while retaining Yosch as the narrator. At times Yosch follows Solgrub’s lead; on other occasions he strikes out on his own, pursuing some clue he has dredged from his memory, only to find Solgrub waiting for him. (It is rather like the Holmes / Watson dynamic, though as Solgrub is a stranger to the Baron before that night, and his social inferior, he is far less trusting). This allows the narrative plenty of twists and turns, as it is driven forward by the tension created by Yosch’s countdown towards an honourable death (at one point Felix appears with the promised letter) and the threat of a murderer who can compel his victims to kill themselves.
Perutz provides the novel with a conclusion that is both fantastical and plausible, one which draws on the horror genre without recourse to the supernatural. He does not forget his characters, however, the final lines focusing on Yosch and Dina, before an Editor’s Postscript casts further doubt on what we have read. Perutz is a wonderful addition to Pushkin’s list of forgotten writers; The Master of the Day of Judgement an exciting beginning for Vertigo.