Books: Waiter, there's a fly in my Sachertorte

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The Independent Culture
Vienna Blood

by Adrian Mathews

Cape pounds 10.99

Today's detective stories either take the path of hip authenticity (James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard), or that of the info-thriller (Philip Kerr and Michael Crichton). The first category has boasted by far the better literary credentials to date. So it is good to see an info-thriller which aims at being more than just a vehicle for the screen adaptation. This fine literary thriller from Adrian Mathews is an updated take on The Boys From Brazil, set in a frozen Viennese winter in the year 2026.

Sharkey, a tittle-tattle journalist, spends a boozy night out with Leo Detmers, a soon-to-be-murdered computer nerd, at a Hamburg conference. Glamorous widows function in much the same way in Vienna as in more traditional detective haunts and, three months later, Leo's turns up out of the blue to pass Sharkey the reins of her late husband's investigations. These concern a conspiracy that is implanting unsuspecting fertility patients with embryos genetically engineered for an unknown purpose. The conspiracy widens with Sharkey's investigations into rising far-right-wing groups - many of Vienna's famously suicidal citizens having by 2026 turned their homicidal attentions towards ethnic minorities once again.

Mathews declines to turn Mrs Detmers into an old-fashioned femme fatale, and we should be grateful he avoids the cliche. Unfortunately, however, he seems unsure how to replace the old mainstays. Cliche or not, this kind of story will always benefit from a strong female character. Petra Detmers serves merely to showcase the author's flair for physical description and occasionally provide a foil to show how clever Sharkey is. One gets the feeling that if Sharkey were to give up, she would give the matter barely a further thought, even though her life may be at stake.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's presidency has been foretold so many times now we will be surprised if it does not come to pass, but Mathews's other predictions have more charm. "Slow glass", through which light takes five years to filter, is farmed on the shores of Alpine lakes to provide scenic views for the windows of inner-city housing developments.

Mathews explains the science behind his plot very well as Sharkey dances around germ-line therapy and computer hacking. This is not the first time in fiction a hard-boiled detective has turned to hacking to solve a case, but it is refreshing to see that Mathews is not so precious about Sharkey that he can't make him a little nerdy. The best characters are the bit- players: here the author really shows his talent for description. They include an American who learns his mannerisms from bad sitcoms and a police chief with the face of "a prim old biddy observing a wasp circling her Sachertorte at the Cafe Central".

Sharkey himself is a hard-boiled detective of sorts, but he is no derivative character. His greatest debt to the tough private eye mould is a narrative style rooted in the present tense - "I click on a dollar icon on the screen and another sheaf of letters and numbers springs up". That it is used even in such mundane instances at least shows consistency. Sharkey also uses exclamations like "damn fine", and musters some witty put-downs.

All this might seem a little too American for Vienna, but then the story is set 27 years in the future and the world's indigenous cultures will do well to last half that long. Even so, one would have thought it is not in the destiny of Germans to be cool. Whatever other criticisms can be levelled at this book, one in particular puts them in their place: it is a little too short. Mathews leaves you wanting more, and forthcoming books from this talented writer will, with luck, make up the shortfall.