The Quiet Twin, By Dan Vyleta

Something rotten in the state of Austria

Reviewed,James Urquhart
Sunday 06 February 2011 01:00

Vienna, autumn 1939: Dr Anton Beer, a medic whose formal training embraces the deviant Jewish thinking of the banned Sigmund Freud, holds a general surgery in his apartment on the upper floor of a suburban tenement.

A needy patient in the same block is Zuzka, the niece of Professor Speckstein, who has been sent to the city to recover from an unspecified nervous condition. Beer considers her a hysteric, a sham, but dutiful house calls gradually draw him into the Speckstein household.

Disgraced after a rape trial but clinging to social power as a Nazi Party neighbourhood informer, Professor Speckstein coerces Beer into reviewing the evidence of a string of local murders – including the butchering of his own aged hound. Zuzka, audacious through boredom, on the cusp of womanhood (or in need of, as Speckstein's housekeeper tartly observes, a husband), uses her despised uncle's authority to pursue her own inquiries into the miserable fate of the family dog.

From her uncle's apartment, at the affluent front of the block, Zuzka can peer into the windows of their neighbours in the two wings that overlook the shared courtyard, and what is observed serves as an ingenious driver to Dan Vyleta's plot. The novel opens at a slow, wary pace that reflects the guarded private lives of the apartment block's diverse inhabitants, all variously braced against the threat of notice by hostile authorities. But Zuzka's reckless sorties into uncharted emotional territory, Beer's reluctant probing, and an increasingly heavy police involvement steadily accelerate the pace of The Quiet Twin towards a denouement catalysed by a dinner party that Speckstein plans for the local Nazi top brass.

Vital, deftly realised characters populate Vyleta's simmering narrative. Most pungent is Teuben, the boorish, unprincipled police detective whose swaggering, presumptive authority holds all the arbitrary menace of Austria's eager pliancy to the Führer.

The gathering intensity of Vyleta's tentacular plot allows the loosest of assonances with Hamlet. Zuzka's seamy, mime-artist neighbour is roped into performing at the Professor's ghastly soirée which, Zuzka vainly hopes, will expose her uncle's guilty conscience. On an increasingly corpse-strewn stage, Beer dithers over his own courage and duty. More in tone than action, the malaise of the Nazi eugenics programme provides the rancid atmosphere of a rotten state.

Darker in tone than the ludic Pavel & I, Vyleta's debut, The Quiet Twin is a sharp and confident novel that captures the social paranoia and mistrust fomented by Nazism. At the novel's outset, startled by a doorbell, Dr Beer "jumped and feared arrest, irrationally" – an adverb that speaks of the timid doctor steadying his nerves with logic against the insidious but explicit criminalisation of the times.

Regardless of whodunit, Vyleta's subtly engaging thriller is tense with violent acts that are, perhaps above all else, a manifestation of the era's anxieties.

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