Bloomsbury, $26.00, 427 pages, ISBN 978-1-60819-809-2
In the immediate aftermath of WWII, Vienna, Austria was a political, social and environmental disaster. It was a city in the hard business of reconstruction, denazification and redirection . . . a place that was in the midst of “Convincing itself that it was the first victim of Nazism, not it’s willing bride.” By the year 1948, expatriates, prisoners of war and other refugees were streaming back to a city that was almost unrecognizable. It was a time of change: Czechslovokia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Albania and the eastern half of Germany had all gone communist, influenced by the USSR; while the Greeks and Austrians were trying to decide whether to align themselves with the eastern communists or the western democracies, as the Iron Curtain was slamming down across the European Continent. Vienna, located at the crossroads between east and west, was saturated with intrigue, corruption and spies for both sides.
As The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta begins, an eighteen year old student named Robert Seidel is sharing a first-class train compartment with a thirtyish woman named Anna Beer, from Switzerland to Austria. It’s 1948, and both of them are returning to a city they hardly recognize. Vienna has suffered greatly in the nine or ten years they’ve been gone: the woman because of her husband’s infidelity, the boy from boarding school, where his family had stashed him for protection as World War II was getting underway. Neither one of them has any idea what to expect when they get home. Strangers on the train, their lives become entwined as Robert’s brother, a former Waffen SS Officer, is put on trail for murder, and Anna tries to find her husband, a former Russian prisoner of war, now among the missing, or the dead. Other principal characters in this complex novel include a hunchbacked maid, a drug dependent matriarch, a Czech former POW, a war widowed American journalist, and a shadowy, mysterious figure wearing a red scarf who’s continuously appearing, but remains unknown and unidentified until the last. The novel is intense, intellectual and reminiscent of Fyodor Doestoevsky and Charles Dickens. It is not an easy or light read, but well worth the effort, as those who do will not only be entertained, but educated and enlightened as well.