The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta - book review: Vyleta's bent on Gothic thrills again in postwar Vienna


A beautiful but bitter middle-aged woman and a well-dressed adolescent, barely yet a man, share a first-class compartment on a delayed train rumbling slowly into postwar Vienna. Each is returning after a long absence: having fled her marriage after she discovered her husband, Anton, in bed with another man, Anna Beer has been living in Paris for nine years; while Robert Seidel has been at boarding school in Switzerland. Much about the city and its inhabitants has changed while they've been away, but the world each of them steps back into is still in turmoil.

Anna is ready to give her marriage a second chance, but she arrives back to an empty flat. Anton has mysteriously vanished and no one knows where he is – not the spindly, drunken giant who claims he's her husband's friend and has keys to their home, the Czech POW Karel Neumann; not even her husband's lover, Gustav Kis.

Robert's homecoming is no less disorientating – his stepfather lies dying in a hospital bed and his stepbrother, Wolfgang, a "Nazi hood turned parricide", languishes in a police cell about to stand trial for supposedly throwing his father out of a window. The family's once elegant, wealthy home is in disarray: Wolfgang's pregnant wife, Poldi, lies in her sickbed, and Robert's mother drifts about the house in a drug-induced fug, snorting powders with one hand, scattering rat poison with her other, leaving the hunchbacked maid – proud, prickly Eva – to rule the roost. Occasionally, "some shard of talk that dropped out of the rest of the words and urged the study of its meaning" accosts Robert, but otherwise his home is an impenetrable "riddle".

Where's Anton Beer? Did Wolfgang really throw his father from the window or did the older man jump? Why was Anton searching for the crooked maid Eva before he disappeared, and who is the ghostly man wearing the red scarf who always seems to be haunting the streets outside the Seidel villa, watching and waiting?

The setting is uncannily familiar: "the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid" is recognisable from Carol Reed's The Third Man, not to mention Vyleta's previous book, The Quiet Twin (the novels are connected, but this isn't strictly speaking a sequel), and indeed, Vyleta writes with the sharp, brutal clarity of cinematic freeze frames. It's "like something by Dumas", Anna observes when Robert tells her of the events that have unfolded: but twist their stories together and it's noir meets Gothic – a thrilling tale of war crimes, family secrets, murder and blackmail.