#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE SECOND RIDER by Alex Beer

The second rider (of the four horsemen of the apocalypse) is war, and ‘War has a long arm. Long after it is over, it continues to claim victims.’ So runs the quote – from Martin Kessel – on the first page of this book. I must make a confession: I have researched, written and lectured on the brutal aftermath of World War 1 in Germany, but I had really not understood that Austria had undergone what was in many ways even worse. Mea culpa. Vienna in 1919 was in psychological and social trauma, the wrecked capital of a wrecked empire, a rump state that had lost its monarchy and ninety percent of its land mass. There were violent riots and political confrontations on the streets of this once elegant city throughout the early summer. Its economy had collapsed, industrialists and nobles went bankrupt, while speculators and black-marketeers made fortunes profiting from the huge shortages of food, clothes and energy. The wages of those lucky enough to have a job were rarely enough for more than a hand-to-mouth existence; men fought over a cigarette and even middle-class women went on the game. There was a health crisis and Viennese children suffered particular hardship:

‘… inside they encountered the most miserable squalor … suddenly a heart-rending cough rang out … in one of the beds lay two girls who were so small and emaciated that their bodies barely made a bulge in the thin bed cover.’

Into this world of poverty, deprivation and lawlessness steps Inspector August Emmerich, a war veteran wracked with pain from a leg injury and with a penchant for bending the rules to achieve some kind of justice for the citizens of Vienna and, in the process, he hopes, enough kudos to be promoted to Leib und Leben, (‘life and death’), the major-crimes squad. He’s supposed to be on the trail of the top black-market operator in the city – who just happens to have been in the same orphanage as he was as a child – but gets side-tracked by a series of apparent suicides, which he suspects are anything but. His number two is Ferdinand Winter, the scion of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, whose distaste for these corpses occasionally provides a blackly humorous counterpoint to the otherwise unremitting misery of Vienna.

‘His eyes happened to land on the steel tub next to the examination table … in the cloudy water swam hands, feet arms, legs and … the slit-open torso of a woman … he ran out of the room holding a hand over his mouth.’

As Emmerich and Winter discover, the shadow of the Great War is not just a backdrop, but colours every aspect of life in Vienna and brings Emmerich to the edge of despair as the body count grows:

‘“Because of people like you, ideas like right and just are meaningless. Nothing more than illusions used to control people.” He thought about his job and how hard he had worked to uphold the law. All in vain … people weren’t worth saving.’ 

This is Alex Beer’s first August Emmerich novel – though she has written other Krimis under her real name, Daniela Larcher – and her first to be translated into English. The Second Rider is atmospheric, dark and utterly compelling, yet also painfully sad. She has created a Vienna completely at odds with the one we know, commendably recreated by translator Tim Mohr, and it will be fascinating to read how she develops Emmerich’s character: the epilogue leaves us knowing he will be back – and with a vengeance! – and indeed there are two more Emmerichs awaiting translation. I trust they will appear soon.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE SECOND RIDER

Written by Alex Beer

Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Published by Europa Editions (October 2018)


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university  lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: March 2019Reviews

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