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"Rick Blechta is fast making his way up the ranks of the newer generation of Canadian crime writers and Cemetery of the Nameless should only serve to hasten his progress." -- Peter Robinson
"Rick Blechta is a musician first, a writer second. When he combines the two he produces magic with an intense, suspenseful story that will not let you go." -- Angel L. Soto, reviewingtheevidence.com
This is the second outing for Victoria Morgan, violin virtuoso extraordinaire, and her long-suffering husband Oscar Lukesh, affectionately known as Rocky.
This time out, while playing to a full house in Vienna’s famous “Golden Hall”, Tory abruptly stops her concert, walks offstage and disappears into the night, leaving behind an angry and puzzled audience. Why would someone so intent on her career do something so damaging?
Tory’s decision to leave proves to be fatal when she is accused of the brutal murder of a wealthy and powerful Austrian aristocrat. While the press hounds anyone who knows her for answers, it appears Tory is running from them, the police and even her husband. Or is she?
At the heart of the story is a mysterious violin concerto of incredible worth. Is it truly by Beethoven? Was Tory to be the first to perform this dream piece, or were these things just promises used to bait a trap? Now it looks as if it’s up to Rocky to help save Tory from herself and figure out who is committing the growing number of murders if it isn’t his wife.
Set in Montreal, and Vienna, the greatest city for music in the world, this novel is darker, less light-hearted than Rick's previous outings, but no less compelling.
Here's a small taste of what's in store: the Prologue to Cemetery of the Nameless:
Angrily swiping at a trickle of sweat dripping down his forehead, Hans Drost knew the thick coating of dust and cobwebs covering his face was only being smeared more, but he preferred that to stinging eyes. Why had he ever agreed to help that crone, Frau Hübner?
The overweight, 68-year-old man straightened up, slowly stretching the kinks from his back. Even with the temperature of the early Viennese spring hugging only ten degrees Celsius outside, the disused attic was turning into a sweatbox.
Like all the old, unrenovated buildings, this one had become stuffed to the rafters with piles of worthless, forgotten junk and he’d been stupid enough to agree to help clean it out. Help? Hah! Frau Hübner had left to run "errands" several hours earlier, conveniently leaving Hans to do all the work by himself.
He lifted yet another wooden box, carrying it to the stairs. With each step down, the temperature dropped by a degree or two, and at the bottom, Hans gratefully sucked in a cool lungful of air.
That’s more like it, he thought. I’ll drag out going through this box as long as I can. Maybe I won’t have to go back upstairs again today. Next week, I’ll make some excuse why I can't return to finish the job.
Setting the box down on the folding table, Hans began halfheartedly thumbing through the papers it contained. Towards the bottom, he came to a crumbling, faded gray folio tied shut by what had once probably been a bright red ribbon. Written on the cover in a spindly hand, a faded 1826 could just be made out. Lifting the bundle from the box, he carefully placed it on the table. Struggling with the knot in the ribbon, Hans inevitably tugged too hard and it tore free.
"Scheisse!" he muttered, flinging the ratty piece of cloth to the floor.
Taking off his wire-rim glasses, the old man found a relatively clean spot at the bottom of his undershirt and proceeded to wipe away the worst of the dust. Replacing them on the end of his nose, he bent close to examine the first page of the folio. There, in the same hand as the date on the cover, he found what looked to be household accounts. To anyone who’d seen documents of this type, it was nothing special: so much spent for butter, so much for flour, so much for the servants. Picking up another sheet, something caught Hans’ eye.
Halfway down the second column were the initials L v B. Opposite was the amount this person had paid for a case of Moselle wine on January 28th. A trickle of sweat again slid down his forehead but Hans didn’t even notice as he examined the papers more closely. Beside numerous entries throughout the year he found the same three initials. Then, lifting some more papers from the folio, he found something curious indeed: sheets of music manuscript covered with notes done in a vigorous, undisciplined hand. An orchestral score. His long fingers trembled as Hans picked up the page and carried it over to the window where the light was better.
A half hour later, Hans felt so shaky he could barely stand. The contents of the box had been carefully separated into three stacks. The largest contained only household records for a person who had inhabited Frau Hübner’s building a hundred and fifty years earlier, accounts, business documents and such, and other than being curiosities of a bygone age, they didn’t hold much value. A smaller stack was loose papers from a household ledger from an even earlier time, written in an entirely different hand, and they were for a different building altogether: the Schwarzspanierhaus, which used to stand just outside the opposite side of the First District from where Hans now stood. These were more interesting due to all the entries with those three initials.
It was the smallest stack that transfixed Hans’ gaze, and even though he’d only studied the manuscript for a short time, he felt certain beyond a doubt. It seemed unbelievable, but he had to trust his eyes and the feeling that penetrated to the very core of his being.
The old man had stumbled upon a find unparalleled in the history of music. A thousand pounds of gold couldn’t approach the value of that unassuming pile of aged paper.
Hans gently caressed the top sheet. Nobody had known of the treasure which lay forgotten in the attic for all those years. A thought crossed his mind a sly, evil thought. Hans, straightening up in dismay, banished it at once, but it came sneaking back almost immediately.
Frau Hübner had told him, "Throw everything into the garbage! It is of no use to me!" Would she mind if Hans kept this one small thing? Didn’t she have more money than she knew what to do with anyway?
He knew he should tell her, show her what had sat above the room she’d slept in for the past seventy years. Yes! She had not imagined anything like this. How could anyone have known?
Then Hans thought of his own miserable apartment, the ancient stereo, his collection of worn-out recordings, and the broken-down piano on which he gave lessons to supplement the paltry income from his job in the shoe department of the C&A store on Mariahilfer Strasse. Even combined, they couldn’t pay in a lifetime what Hans would realize for a tenth of this extraordinary discovery.
"Let’s just think of this as payment for the work you’ve done here today," Hans said to himself as he finally made the inevitable decision.
Carefully placing the fragile papers back into the empty cover of the folio, he picked up the satchel that contained the remains of his meagre lunch and placed the folio between two opera scores he’d borrowed from a friend that morning.
The only problem lay in finding the right purchaser. Until then, he mustn’t let anyone know what he had. A chance word, a slip of the tongue and a thief -- or perhaps the government itself -- would steal this precious thing away. The right purchaser… Hans chuckled happily. He knew just the person to approach: knowledgeable, discreet, a collector and best of all, very wealthy. Hans used to tune the man’s piano before he’d been fired ignominiously. Now, he’d finally get some measure of revenge for that embarrassment. The man would do anything to own this precious manuscript.
Later, as he walked four flights down the echoing stairwell to the ground floor, tightly clutching the satchel which contained the manuscript, visions of the wonderful things he would buy danced through Hans’ mind so that he could barely keep from laughing out loud.
The dirty smears on his face had long been forgotten, because from that hot, dusty attic, Hans had resurrected all his dreams and then some.
On this part of the river, at the edge of the Simmering industrial area in the southeast corner of Vienna, rocks had been piled along both shores as protection against erosion from floods. Rundown shacks on stilts used by fishermen dotted the shore among the scraggly trees, proof that the river was prone to overrunning its banks. Nearby, a few old factories and wrecks of factories lined the old Alberner Hafen backwater. In the gray light of an overcast day everything looked shabby and rough, and even though the tips of the trees swelled green with growth ready to burst forth, the weather had remained stubbornly cold during the past week. Winter still seemed too uncomfortably close to unbutton your coat even a little.
The couple had come down to this far corner of Austria’s capitol, the place where they’d fallen in love, in order to enjoy a modest meal at the nearby Gasthaus Namenlosen, then stroll through the park extending along the river, part meadow, part ancient trees. In the warmer weather it would be crowded with picnicing families but on this inhospitable day, the couple had it all to themselves as they calmly discussed their future.
They were on their way back up the road to catch the bus into the downtown when they saw it.
Later, even though both were still quite shaken, they managed to speak with detachment about their grisly discovery when the police inspector found time to take their statements.
"I noticed something bobbing in the water just by those rocks there," the young man said. "I thought at first that it was floating garbage."
"That’s right," his pretty wife agreed. "I commented to Friedrich that it was a shame people didn’t respect the river more."
"By that time, we were almost directly above it, so I went down the rocks to the shore to remove it from the water. That’s when I saw that it was a body." He shuddered at the memory. "Inge went back to the Gasthaus to call the authorities while I kept watch."
The grim discovery made by the young couple hadn’t seemed particularly horrific to the two policemen who’d first responded to the call. After all, wasn’t the small, nearby graveyard hidden behind some rundown grain elevators noted simply on local maps as Friedhof der Namenlosen, Cemetery of the Nameless? That name had not been given by whim or chance.
Several times a year, bodies dumped in the Danube somewhere upstream became caught in the backwater below where the old Danube Canal returns to the main channel of its parent river. Sometimes it was an accidental death. Maybe a suicide. In this case, the cause of death was more sinister.
Any of those bodies which couldn’t be identified eventually got buried in the small, lonely cemetery tucked back among the nearby trees, there to spend the time until Judgment Day under a black wrought iron cross with a white crucifix at the centre. Also on these crosses were plaques upon which could be found a single, chilling word: Namenlos, and at the bottom, simply a number on a porcelain disk to identify the grave.
The bodies could be pretty gruesome when the carrion feeders, either fish or fowl, had gotten their turn at the remains or if decomposition was far advanced. The gendarmarie referred to these specimens somewhat ghoulishly as "angeschwappte", referring to the bloating that occurs after several days in the water.
But this body hadn’t been in the river long. What sharpened the interest of the Viennese police had been the neat bullet hole in the back of the head. The exit wound wasn’t quite so neat, but that had been the whole idea. One couldn’t easily identify a body when it had very little face left. Whoever had done the deed had taken care of the fingerprints, too. The end of each finger had been neatly severed at the last joint. Routine DNA samples would be taken and stored, but unless someone filed a missing person’s report, there would be little chance of making any progress. Often, the people who might have cared were too frightened to come forward.
And another cross would be added to the Cemetery of the Nameless.
The service, held in the small, circular concrete chapel built into the side of a dike at the head of the cemetery, had been perfunctory since the only people present had been the detective, a morgue assistant who’d brought the body (talked into staying to help by the bribe of a beer at the Gasthaus), two gravediggers and a fat, thoroughly bored priest. No one else came to this forgotten corner of the city to see another unfortunate to his final resting place. A wasted morning.
The young detective looked up sourly as he left the chapel. The branches of the trees surrounding the small graveyard arched high overhead, and whereas in the the warmth of summer they might provide a bit cooling shade, now, seeming like bare fingers, they only made Namenlosen feel even more forlorn and desolate. This forgotten corner of Austria’s capitol would never be a place of solace and comfort. The bedraggled plants among the graves and the trees would help make certain of that. But mostly it would be the rows of numbered graves, the only remaining memory of those lying beneath who had drowned in the waters of the river.
As he, too, trudged down the dirt road to the Gasthaus for some relief from the biting wind, Gottfried wondered about the person who had come to such a violent end. All the police knew was that the deceased had been around seventy, in reasonable health, and despite the loss of the last joint on each, had possessed astonishingly long fingers.
Catching sight of the Danube still rushing by in its spring flood, despite his mood, Gottfried began to hum "An Der Schönen, Blauen Donau"* regardless of the colour of its waters.
Copyright © 2005 by Rick Blechta. This excerpt may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written consent of RendezVous Press, Toronto.
Rick talks about writing his latest novel and how it's never wrong to visit the "scene of the crime" as it were...
"The plot for Cemetery of the Nameless came out of a chance conversation at an after-concert party several years ago. A recently discovered work by Mozart had been performed somewhere in Europe and a group of us got into a “what if” discussion. One person mentioned that Beethoven before his death in 1827 had sketched parts of what would have become his 10th Symphony. “What if he’d actually done more than sketch it, but no one knew? What would something like that worth if it suddenly appeared on the open market?” With that comment, my creative juices started flowing.
What if, indeed!
The plot of Cemetery originally actually involved Beethoven’s unknown 10th Symphony and my concept only had a few scenes in Vienna, but it became clear before I reached the 100th page that the plot would be much improved if I were to change the symphony to a violin concerto and drop my main character (a struggling composer whom I couldn't even begin to like) in favour of Victoria Morgan and her husband Rocky from my second novel, The Lark Ascending. I began again and before I finished, Vienna had become a focal point of the plot, the ending had completely changed and the overall tone of the story had darkened considerably.
One of the joys of writing this novel was visiting Vienna twice! I had originally thought I could write it from Canada with a lot of input from friends who had studied music in Vienna, as well as those I knew who had actually been born there. A chance conversation with my sister after a Christmas dinner about her visits to this great musical city made it abundantly clear that I could never do a decent job on the story if I didn’t go there.
And so, with the novel half-written and no clear idea what the ending would be or where in Vienna it would take place, I set off with my wife (and faithful German translator) one March Break to spend ten days discovering what Vienna might hold in store.
To say the trip was a success would be to totally understate the serendipitous things that happened. For example, Cemetery has several little “nods” to one of my favourite films, The Third Man, and the opening of the book had a body floating in the Danube near one of the promenades along the river. By chance, we stayed at a pension whose owner knew two of the local cops (I needed them to have the hierarchy of the Viennese Gendarmarie explained to me). When they didn’t understand exactly what I wanted (we were working mostly in German), I told them the beginning of the story to try to give them some idea of what I was writing about. They looked at each other and one excitedly said, "Friedhof der Namenlosen!" It was then explained that this is a spot where bodies dumped or fallen or jumped into the Danube would sometimes float ashore, and the friedhof was where the ones that couldn’t be unidentified were buried.
Needless to say, this incredibly intrigued me. My wife and I headed down there the next day (it’s in the extreme southeast corner of the city), and for the opening scene of my book, I could not have imagined a location more perfect. Down an unpaved road past old factories and vacant warehouses, the Friedhof der Namenlosen looked forlorn and forgotten; the black iron crosses with white crucifixes seemed as if they came right out of a Dracula movie and it was easy to imagine the ghosts of the unquiet dead. The muddy, swollen Danube rushing by (it was early spring, after all) added the finishing touch. Death could happen here.
I now had the perfect beginning to my story and the title of the book!
By the way, if you've seen the film Before Sunrise, you've seen the Friedhof. It's right near the beginning of the movie as our soon-to-be young lovers first set out to see Vienna."
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