Vienna. A Place to Live and A Place to Die
Dorothy James: You asked me how and why I chose Viennese history as background for my mystery, what research I had to do. I would not quite put it like that. I chose Vienna, yes. This was a choice I made for my life when I was young.
I was a student in London. I had grown up in Wales and wanted to study foreign languages. In my school, there was a wonderful German teacher, and so I ended up studying German literature at the University of London. There I applied for an Austrian Government Scholarship to spend a year in Austria, and to my incredible delight, I got one. So I found myself at the age of 22 alone in Vienna. I still remember the moment of getting off the train in the big old Westbahnhof, leaving my luggage at the station, and setting off on a cold, dark November day to find a place to live.
This was the beginning of my own history in the ancient city on the Danube. I spent a lot of time that first cold winter in the libraries of the city (where there was at least a modicum of heat!), beginning to do research into early nineteenth century Vienna. I was working on a playwright of the Viennese popular theater and his connection with the city. I read old guide-books, pored over maps, leafed through memoirs and read the works of his great contemporaries. I would come out of the library at night and as I walked through the narrow streets of the inner city to my little room, right opposite the cathedral (amazing though that now seems), I was not sure whether I was living in the nineteenth or the twentieth century.
So when you ask why did I choose Viennese history as a background to my mystery, I can only answer, I chose to set my mystery in Vienna, and for me the history of the city is present in every street and in every stone. I had gone back in recent years to the city and now had a little apartment, not in the center of the city—completely out of reach in today’s economic climate!—but on the edge of the Vienna Woods. I wanted to write a murder mystery as a complete break from my academic writing, and there I was in the city where I’d found a place to live many moons ago.
I wanted to write a murder mystery set in a retirement home, a closed society of people. A wonderful setting to investigate a murder, and to explore the dynamics of a micro-society. Where else would I set it but in Vienna, where the lives of the elderly characters would themselves encompass anything up to ninety turbulent years of history? I had discovered the city years ago as a place to live. Now I would explore it in my mystery as a place to die.
About the author: Dorothy James, writer, editor, and translator, has taught at universities in the U.S., England, and Germany, makes her home in Brooklyn and often spends time in Vienna and Berlin. She wrote A Place to Die in her attic apartment on the edge of the Vienna Woods.
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