If I had to guess when my fascination with the city of Vienna began, I’d say it started when I was 13. Our teacher had promised my class that she was going to take us to either Vienna or Barcelona on a school trip the following year, and I went home and opened my Encyclopedia (both the one on paper and the one on cd-rom – yes I’m that old). As soon as I saw the pictures of several places in Vienna, I knew I had to see them with my own eyes.
Unfortunately enough, that teacher got replaced at the end of the school year, and the one that arrived in her place wasn’t so keen on taking the class on a school trip.
Besides, it was just after 9/11 (I told you I’m that old) and people generally felt something as bad could happen in Europe at any moment, and everyone was quite freaked out about traveling. And so, my first trip to Vienna had to be postponed.
I was bummed, for sure, but also confident that my trip to Vienna was only a matter of time. Thing is, it was a matter of a very long time, as I finally got to visit the city not earlier than 18 years after that initial fascination. Life has got its own sense of irony, after all. And this is especially true if we consider that the trip to Vienna was the last time I got abroad before the pandemic. Now that I think about it, the last time I went abroad, period.
Anyway, all this long introduction to explain why I couldn’t resist the charm of Nik Gribaski’s series of murder mysteries set in Vienna at the end of Nineteenth Century. The protagonist is Leo Katz, a young photographer whose job is to take pictures of crime scenes for the Vienna Police.
In the first book of the series, Black Danube, Leo and his friends have to investigate the gruesomemurder of a young man. His fiancee is the only suspect and she has confessed the murder, but there’s something that doesn’t sit right with Leo and his friends/colleagues dr. Klaus Rosenbloom and Lucy Strauss. As the police investigation goes on, we see that there’s something Leo is hiding not only from us, but from his friends too. As the story goes on, his secret is hinted and then revealed with a twist close to the end of Black Danube.
Well, I could see since page one that Leo wasn’t your typical Sherlock Holmes, that there was more about him hidden behind his scars and his unwillingness to talk about his past, but I have to say I liked how the suspicion crept in page after page. Another aspect that was tackled very well in the book was the prejudices people had against Jews, and how a certain anti-semitism was institutionalized so much that the police seemed eager to close the case (the victim was a Jew).
Lightning tattoo, instead, takes place shortly after the events of Black Danube. This time it seems like rats are killing people, and nobody has a clue how or why they do it. The only thing that seems to link the victims with each other is the fact that they belong to the same society of galvanizers.
In my opinion, this second book focus less on the murder mystery itself (even though the deaths and their gruesome modalities can’t be ignored) and more on Leo and his struggle to fit in the early 1900 society. To add to his internal struggle, a circus of freaks is performing in Vienna at the same time as the murders happen, and a few of the circus people manage to see Leo’s inner self for what it is.
On one hand he finds someone that understands him without judging, and it’s good because we can see that his secret is tearing him apart from inside. But he can’t reveal it to his closest friends, because he might lose them.
I loved how Leo was pictured in his insecurity as he tries to fit in with his role in society while dealing with a sort of imposter syndrome impossible to overcome. And he has to keep it all inside, because he can’t reveal the deception to his friends after such a long time. In a certain sense, it shows the leaps we’ve taken in accepting people for who they are, but it also tells us that we shouldn’t take such accomplishments for granted.
The historical setting works very well, the descriptions of the city through the eyes of Leo are beautiful. And both books tackle certain aspects of the late 19th/early 20th century, meshing them very well with the story and the mysteries to be solved. The suspicion against Jews in Black Danube, and the dangers of a certain kind of extreme enthusiasm in science in Lighting Tattoo.
Both Black Danube and Lighting Tattoo finish with a sort of cliffhanger, but I’m sure the latter outshines the former one, no doubt about it. All the curiosity I had at the end of Black Danube was quickly forgotten, and not because that ending was weak. It’s that the ending of Lighting Tattoo is such a shocker that everything else that happened until that point paled in comparison.
I have to say that the way it happened looked like a bit of a stretch to me, but it was the kind of stirring up we needed. And there’s no point in questioning how it happened, because at the end of Lighting Tattoo Leo is in real danger and the only thing that matters is what will happen to him. The third book of the series can’t come out fast enough.
PS. As a side note, Sachertorte is my favorite dessert, and I place it in a completely different league with respect to any other dessert. Hotel Sacher already gave me the 19th-Century vibes as I visited it (because of course I did). Setting a consistent chunk of Lightning Tattoo inside the Hotel Sacher surely helped my immersion in old Vienna.