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Book Review: Diplomatic Impunity by Jaya Gulhaugen

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Diplomatic Impunity is a book with a distinctly cozy cover: a delightful still-life shot of a table-top, set with pretty china pieces, complete with whipped cream and Sacher Torte. The cover captures the atmosphere of this Viennese Christmas Mystery. No need for the timid reader to fear anything resembling horror in this portrait of an American family, even though the father of the Gilman family is a CIA operative, even though he has been posted to Vienna at the height of the Cold War in the fifties, even though the opening scene of the novel depicts an ugly broken body, fallen onto the floor of a ballroom.

The sound of the fall, we are told, was muffled by “the high-spirited singing of Christmas carols.” The body has fallen to its death on Christmas Day, and after showing it to us, with some gruesome detail, the narrator takes us back eight days to describe the events that led up to this mysterious fall. The eight-day narrative occupies the first half of the novel, and here the reader may be forgiven for wondering whether the mystery itself is not being muffled by the high-spirited family preparations for Christmas. There are many charming descriptions of family events, outings of parents and children to such places as the then famous Dianabad swimming-pool, the English Reading Room (“one of the family’s favorite spots in all of Vienna”), the outdoor skating rink near the Stadtpark, the American Protestant Church in the Dorotheergasse — these and other places that will evoke much nostalgia among readers like myself who actually remember Vienna in the fifties.

There is no doubting the authenticity of the Viennese atmosphere, as experienced by foreigners in those chilly, gray post-war days. Totally authentic, too, is the interaction between the American parents and their four children. So much is one caught up in the comings and goings of their lives, it is only in the second half of the novel where the mystery begins to be unraveled, that the reader realizes how, in almost all of these earlier scenes of seemingly innocent amusement, were buried clues to the solution of the mystery, or characters who turn out unexpectedly but plausibly to be bit-players or prime movers in the central drama.

This is very cleverly done. The characters come alive from the first page — in particular, the American and British embassy types with their various kinds of class-consciousness and hierarchical thinking. But Austria’s past, too, the Nazi period, the war, the post-war scene, all these play a part not only in the setting of the novel but in its actual plot.

The novel will appeal to those readers who like a good mystery, and are happy to immerse themselves in a foreign culture as full of stories and histories as the Viennese culture in the fifties was. It is a thoroughly entertaining piece of story-telling and, for those who want to see it, a fascinating glimpse into a time that has passed.

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About Dorothy James

Born in Wales and grew up in the South Wales Valleys, lives now in Brooklyn, New York. Writer, editor, translator, has published short stories as well as books and articles on German and Austrian literature. Taught German language and literature at the University of London and the City University of New York, and English language at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany.. Chair of the German Department of Hunter College for fourteen years. Wrote and published a murder mystery in 2010, and blogs on mysteries and topics arising therefrom: www.myplaceformystery.com.,