The Empty Mirror by J. Sydney Jones – Review

Murder reflects the society and era in which it occurs. Like a piece of music, a painting, or a sculpture, murder allows us to see how people of another time behaved when someone’s life ended at the hands of another. Is it fate? Justice? Unfair? Of no importance depending on one’s social class? J. Sydney Jones presents us with these questions as we encounter a grisly string of murders that repulse Viennese society at the end of the 19th century in The Empty Mirror: A Viennese Mystery (St. Martin’s , 2009).

The story opens with the stodgy lawyer Karl Werthen lamenting his choice to become one of Vienna’s best wills and trusts lawyers instead of a criminal investigator like his friend Professor Hanns Gross. The appearance of the working class yet celebrated and uncouth artist Gustav Klimt at his breakfast table changes Werthen’s day and perhaps his life into one of a criminologist as well. Klimt’s model for his infamous Nuda Veritas painting has been found murdered, and Klimt has no alibi. Werthen and Gross team up to clear Klimt and stumble upon a Pandora’s box of evils and pleasures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Throughout The Empty Mirror, readers can glimpse into the lives:

· Of assimilated Jews, who rediscover pride in their heritage
· Of women bristling at their restrictive lives
· Of gourmands enjoying paper thin schnitzel and Rhine wines
· Of nosy Viennese housewives, who are a detective’s dream….for a price

As detectives, Werthen and Gross use new forensic methods such as photography to advance their investigation while the rest of Austria remains in grudging transition. The Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef himself detests typewriters and makes minimal use of the telephone. Automobiles exist, but even Werthen and Gross use horse drawn carriages to speed from one crime scene to the next. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is changing in The Empty Mirror albeit slowly.

Klimt represents change and is hard to keep out of the story along with the mirror that he painted in Nuda Veritas. Some may view the empty mirror in this painting as a reflection of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and society that no longer exist. However, Klimt was painting for his era and not ours. The outward-pointing empty mirror in the painting may have challenged Viennese viewers of the unclothed woman in Nuda Veritas with the question of “Am I nude or naked?” The answer to that question may have forced Viennese art lovers to ponder what kind of society they wanted to create. Whatever the interpretation you give to the book’s title, you will assuredly want to learn more about Vienna after reading The Empty Mirror.

Next Sunday, October 3, 2010 at noon EST (New York Time), Ruth Paget will be interviewing  J. Sydney Jones about his newest murder mystery Requiem in Vienna and reviewing other murder mystery books set in foreign lands.

This review was originally posted on Ruth Paget’s blog Belle Vie Reviews and More