Graham Greene famously divided his books into two categories: novels, and what he called “entertainments.” He wished from time to time to indulge an appetite for pulp, and it was only fair to let his readers know what they were getting into. The joke, of course, is that, being Graham Greene, he never wrote anything even close to pulp fiction. Nobody could possibly mistake Greene’s antic satire Our Man in Havana, which he subtitled “An Entertainment,” for, say, the adventures of Blackford Oakes.
The novelist Dan Vyleta, who owes a significant debt to Greene, would run into the same problem if he set out to write an embossed-jacket potboiler. The raw materials are certainly all there: Vyleta, the German-born son of Czech refugees, holds a doctorate in history from Cambridge, and his work draws on a wealth of historical knowledge. His debut, Pavel & I (2008), is a spy novel set in Berlin during the brutal, brutalizing winter of 1946–47. His new book, The Quiet Twin, is a police procedural boasting Nazis, serial murder, and dark, shameful secrets. There’s even a rather unsavory mime, for good measure.
Unfortunately for Vyleta, but fortunately for us, he just isn’t a bad enough writer to ride this stuff to the bestseller list. It’s possible to read Pavel & I almost to the end without quite registering that it’s genre fiction. Espionage and violence are incidental to a more probing story about how human psyches bend or break beneath hardship. The central mystery is less fascinating than the Dickensian grotesques: Pavel, a decommissioned GI with kidney problems; Anders, the boy spiv who becomes his caretaker; Sonia, their upstairs neighbor, mistress of villainous Colonel Fosko; and Peterson, the unlikely narrator, a one-eyed operative who, tasked with torturing Pavel, instead falls under the spell of his quiet intensity.
Much of Pavel & I takes place in a tenement building, and almost all of The Quiet Twin does. The setting works to a different effect in each book. In Pavel, it creates an uncomfortable sense of waiting, marking time, hiding out—dull dread. In The Quiet Twin, the building is not in postwar Berlin, but rather Vienna in 1939. It will come as no surprise, then, that The Quiet Twin is about surveillance, paranoia, and the mounting fear that one doesn’t know nearly enough about the people with whom one is surrounded.
It is a fascist state in miniature, a nightmarish dollhouse in which everyone can look into every room. That isn’t to suggest that the tenants of Vyleta’s building are symbolic, or that their intersecting stories are in some way allegorical. They are real (if anything but ordinary) people whose lives have been disrupted, set on edge, both by the rise of the Nazi party and by a string of local killings. The most recent is the disembowelment of a dog belonging to one Professor Speckstein, a disgraced doctor turned Nazi Zellenwart, or neighborhood supervisor and informant.
The hero, so to speak, of The Quiet Twin is another doctor, 34-year-old Anton Beer, who operates a small practice out of his apartment and is treating Speckstein’s niece Zuzka for an apparently hysterical illness. One night, Speckstein summons Beer, gives him confidential files on the murders (“I have some influence, you understand”), and explains, “Somebody killed my dog. I have reason to believe they may be after me.” It turns out that Beer is not only a doctor but also a scholar of forensic psychiatry—not a great thing to be at a time when familiarity with Freud could invite unwanted scrutiny.
Soon everyone is an amateur investigator, and everyone is, as they say, a suspect. Zuzka reveals, a little too casually, her own penchant for voyeurism, showing Beer how her window looks out on the courtyard and into other apartments. In one lives 9-year-old Anneliese Grotter and her alcoholic father; in another, a mime:
[H]is face emerged, greasepainted, out of the darkness of the window: hung wide-eyed, unmoving, at the very centre of its frame, held up by neither noose nor neck nor block of wood. When [Zuzka] had first seen him, disembodied it had frightened her and made her take him for a ghost. Then he had stripped one night, had peeled off sweater, gloves and tights, and hung them out into the wind, so very black that they cut deep holes into the fabric of the night. . . . [I]t was tempting to think of him as nothing but a face: paper white, with hairline cracks running through its cheeks where the paint had dried and flaked upon his skin.
Much of Vyleta’s description is written in a kind of morose, monochromatic poetry, and it would not be mere blurb-speak to say that it can be haunting. In this, as in many other scenes, we are reminded that not all watching is malicious or invasive; much of it is done in loneliness and desperation, boredom and curiosity. It is, nevertheless, curiosity that will get Zuzka into trouble: She learns that the mime keeps a woman confined to his apartment, and she sets out, like the heroine of a children’s book, to find out what’s afoot.
Though character is a greater asset to Vyleta than plot, he does craft a pretty topnotch story, and it wouldn’t be right to give too much of it away. It is enough to disclose the following: The stoic, tight-lipped Beer, whose wife has left him for obscure reasons, is hiding at least one fact about himself. Zuzka, who tempts fate by confronting the mime, escapes not wholly unscathed: Against the reader’s too-logical expectations, she falls for him. Anneliese Grotter endures something so shattering that the reader will be forgiven for wishing Vyleta would let just one ray of sunshine into his benighted city block.
The Quiet Twin (like Pavel & I) features a villain it would be too charitable to call larger-than-life: Teuben, the corrupt Nazi police inspector (was there another kind?) who engages Beer in a campaign of infuriating harassment and blackmail. In a book flyblown with misery, sickness, and existential horror—Graham Greene would be proud—one little domestic scene is almost too much to bear:
A child came into the room, nine years old, his hair jet black like his father’s. He had a milky and somewhat sickly complexion and was prone to coughs. Quickly, with light, rapid steps, he walked up to the seated man, pressed his face into the sleeve of his uniform, then began to clamber into his lap. Teuben was indulgent with his only living child and helped him to gain his perch. . . .“What are you reading, Daddy?” Robert asked, scanning the newspaper articles and the pages of notes Teuben had assembled on his desk. “I am reading about a girl only a few years older than you.”
Teuben’s intentions toward the girl in question are far from pure. It seems that evil, wearing the greasepaint of banality, isn’t really so banal after all.
The mime, Otto, turns out to be the player whose motives are easiest to pick out in this goulash of neurosis, fear, and evil. He is also the centerpiece of some of the most beautiful, balletic passages of action and description in either of Vyleta’s books. One does not expect to read about a mime without being irritated. (Then again, Vyleta incorporated into Pavel & I those two great mainstays of hack comedy, the midget and the monkey, without straying an inch from high seriousness.) Two scenes, one in which Otto performs for soldiers departing to the front, the other in which he’s the entertainment at a dinner party of Nazi officials, are too long to quote and too good not to withhold. They must be read in context.
“I think my resistance to the Nazi era,” Vyleta said in an interview, “was partially there’s a lot of clichés these days around it. . . . I didn’t want to write something that felt exploitative of the period. In particular, there’s an element to the plot, the whodunit part, and even the serial murder part, that could easily become very schlocky.” So Vyleta wrestled not with the impulse to call The Quiet Twin an “entertainment,” but with the earnest fear that someone else might. There’s no danger of that.
In two books, he has shown that he can take milieux far removed from us—thrilling ones, horrifying ones—and use them, with care and decency, to examine the limits of just what a human being can bear. Never mind his improbable twists, his lurid tableaux, his Nazi evildoers. With apologies to The Third Man and Harry Lime, Vyleta isn’t interested in cuckoo clocks. Neither is literature.
Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.