Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Place To Die by Dorothy James

7. A Place To Die - first in the Inspector Georg Buchner series
by Dorothy James
mystery, 2010
Kindle book, 5
finished, 2/8/12

I didn't set out to visit three fictional retirement homes in the past few months, but somehow I ended up doing so. Each one has been enlightening and enjoyable. The first was the Phil Edwards book Retirement Can Be Murder, and the second one was the movie, How About You.

If you'd like to listen to Strauss' Tales From The Vienna Woods as you read along, you may find it here.

I have recently joined Goodreads. I haven't written any reviews there, but I have created three lists: currently reading, to read, and read. This is where I first heard of A Place To Die. I am very interested in post-war/modern day Austria and Germany, and this is the first fictional book I've come upon which explores the lives of everyday people there since the Second World War. I would appreciate any recommendations you may have. I am also interested in portrayals of older people. If we are lucky, we shall inhabit their landscape.

Eleanor and Franz Fabian have come over to Vienna from New York for the Christmas holidays to visit Franz' mother who has recently moved from her apartment to Haus im Wald, a facility for older people in the Vienna Woods. There are people living there whose ages span thirty years from Christa, in her sixties who happens to be an old acquaintance of Eleanor's, to a retired Baptist minister who is 93. There are two sections. One offers apartments which are much like ordinary homes, while the other is where those who need nursing care live, and usually where they will die. The Fabians' experiences are interspersed with the detective work of Inspektor Georg Büchner. He enters the story because there has been a murder at Haus im Wald. Herr Hans Graf, a healthy, active man in his seventies has been hit over the head in his apartment. Four people have already died in the month of December, and though they died natural deaths, this latest death has everyone on edge.

Dorothy James did an excellent job of bringing the characters to life. I didn't have to go back and see who someone was, as I often do in books with a lot of characters. The author also brought authenticity to the setting by using, as I've shown above, some of the native words and spellings. The women are all 'Frau' and the men, 'Herr.' Occasional forays into the city proper gave me a good sense of Vienna.
Vienna is a small town you know, it's not London or New York.

The period of the Second World War is rarely discussed amongst the inhabitants themselves.
Silence on certain topics has been a way of life.

The man who was killed had been an art dealer, who inherited many works of art from his family who obtained them through 'Aryanization' during the thirties and forties. We learn that he
came round much later to seeing the gross injustice of all that. … he made large contributions to restitution funds, though … there are those who still think he has certain debts.

Could this be connected to his murder all these years later? Or is someone jealous of his romantic relationship with a beautiful former opera singer who also resides at Haus im Wald?

While investigating the murder, Inspektor Büchner learns of anonymous yellow post-it notes which many residents have received. They are extremely cruel and lewd. There is a lot going on in this place.

This is a book of truths. Old age is not something that is glossed over, or presented in a perky, upbeat way. The Inspektor and the Fabians are people in their fifties and sixties looking ahead to their own older years. The older ones live honestly with their aging. They fear loss of faculties and they fear falling but honestly, their emotions are not all that different from those of the young. We see that the old have all the passions, angers, and joys that younger people have. There are many stories within the walls of this residence, and we get to know them all.

Haus im Wald is a fine place for those who have the money. A contrasting facility is noted for those who do not. There are musings about how it would be better if there were a gym, offering exercise and strength training, and an opportunity for massage instead of drugs.

This is really a wonderful book, unlike any work of fiction or mystery I've read. It is quiet and thoughtful. I've mentioned that I use my Kindle only for bedtime reading, for ease of holding. But while reading A Place To Die, I brought it down every morning, and this became my 'downstairs' book as well. It is intelligent, caring, informative. I can't wait for Dorothy James to publish a second book in the series. Büchner is such an interesting character - a loner policeman who has never married, but isn't really lonely. There is another character I suspect may make an appearance in further Vienna stories.

Here is a view of the Vienna Woods in winter. The weather, the resident rooks, and the very air are so well-drawn that it almost feels like being there as one reads along in the book.

You may read some brief reviews at Goodreads. There are interviews with Dorothy James at I Am A Reader Not A Writer and at The Character Connection.

The author's blog is here.


  1. I read 'Retirement Can be Murder' and saw the movie "How About you" both based on your reviews, and enjoyed them. Dorothy James certainly sounds like a more in-depth read the Phil Edwards series! But since I always enjoy your recommendations, I'm betting I'll be hooked on another author before I even start reading.

    My Kindle has been a real Godsend following my eye surgeries -- I was able to read the very same day by enlarging the font.

  2. Wow, I never thought of that advantage. That little machine was made for you, Sallie. I'm almost positive you'll like this book. I can't stop thinking about it.

  3. Thank you, Nan, for this excellent review. I'll keep this in mind for when I'll have my own kindle by the end of March for my birthday. The honest and truthful portrayal of old age in books and films is something I am quite interested in, and this book seems to manage very well.
    Speaking of four deaths in a row at "Haus im Wald"; I know a young man who works at a retirement home, and he tells me that it really is like that; one dies, and they all wait for another two, because somehow, they always go in threes. It is a strange pattern but one he has been observing for years.

  4. This one sounds very good, and I'm making a note of it. I love the synchronicity of choosing books at random and then discovering that they are all connected by theme, place, events, etc. Of course, I suppose anyone who reads a lot will have those coincidences occur, but they always seem "intentional" in some way.

  5. Librarian, the 'threes' thing seems to be a common fear. Some might call it a superstition but it does seem to happen. Creepy. I look forward to what you think of this book.

    Jenclair, this is such a good book. And it is an interesting reading phenomenon.

  6. I ordered "A Place To Die" for my Kindle last night. Don't you love that you can click an order and voila! it appears on your Kindle in a nano-second...what fun.
    Anyway, it is next on my 'to-be-read' list.

  7. Oh, Jill, I'm so pleased. I am quite, quite sure you will like it. Please come back, or email me after you read it, and tell me what you thought, okay?

  8. This sounds like a good book so I shall look for it on Amazon. I love Strauss and have been lucky enough to attend a Strauss concert in Vienna itself which is a beautiful city.

  9. Rowan, if you've actually been there, I think that would make the book even more special. The descriptions are really good. Lucky you - a perfect concert experience.

  10. Nan, thanks for this recommendation. I truly enjoyed every page and will be eager to read Dorothy James' next story.
    I have not been to Vienna, but her descriptions make really wish I had.
    I am an old lady (78) and my husband is an old man (85). We are fortunate to be able to be here, still functioning, in our own home. Unlike the couples in her story, we still like each other and enjoy each other's company every day. We've celebrated 54 years together and cannot imagine the time when 'we' will become 'one.' The specter of the retirement home/assisted living arrangement raises its scary head with more frequency as the aging process inflicts us with its more unpleasant little gifts.
    So, again, thanks for this read. It has given me lots and lots to think about. Some things to look forward to and many things to dread!

  11. Jill, though I'm a bit younger than you, I felt the same way. I haven't stopped thinking about the book since I finished.
    Another view of retirement home living is the movie, How About You.
    Thanks so much for coming back to talk about the book. It was certainly a moving, thought-provoking story. I think I read that in the next book the detective goes to Berlin.

  12. I will like the visit to Berlin! One of my favorite novel subjects is the Cold War and I have quite a collection of John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, and other authors who wrote so interestingly of that era.
    Although I was too young to appreciate the time between WW1 and WW11, my mother was a knowledgeable historian of this period and I can't help but think she would have liked this book also.

  13. Jill, in an interview, Dorothy James said:

    'I have almost finished a sequel to A Place to Die. It is called A Place to Live, and though it is still set in Vienna, it also plays in New York (briefly) and in Berlin (quite importantly). This time the huge changes that have taken place in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Iron Curtain are something of a backdrop for the plot.'

    I can't wait!

  14. Nan, I have just read your review of my "Place to Die" and am so happy that you have seen right into it and, to use your words, for a while "inhabited the landscape" of its characters. Your discussion of the book is to me heart-warming with its throb of genuine interest and involvement. I like the picture of the Vienna Woods too! And the comments of your readers also raise my spirits on a cold gray February morning in Brooklyn, New York. So thank you all very much!

    1. I am so very pleased you came over to read this. I really loved your book. Thank you for your kind words. It is also cold and gray here this day, and we are supposed to get 6 inches of snow.

  15. Nan, I'm so glad that you found Dorothy's book online. Thanks for the great review and the wonderful comments. I'm glad that you enjoyed it.


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