A case of act first, think later…

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Translated by Ignat Avsey

The 1935 German film

Alexander Lernet-Holenia was Austrian, a protégé of Rilke, he wrote poems, novels, plays and screenplays. He served during both world wars, but managed to keep his distance from the National Socialist Party. I Was Jack Mortimer (Ich war Jack Mortimer) was published in 1933, and has been filmed twice, in Germany in the 30s and Austria in the 50s.

Ferdinand Sponer is thirtyish, and working as a cab driver in Vienna, when he gets a whistle for a fare, a young woman is checking her hair in his cab’s mirror:

She couldn’t have been more than twenty, smartly dressed, even if with that slight nonchalance which is so irresistible in young women.

With her little finger she now wiped a spot of excess lipstick from her lips, and was examining her mouth carefully as the driver approached her. He caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror as he stood behind her. A pair of large grey eyes gazed at him from under a short veil as she tilted the mirror to see who was there.

Turns out the young lady was from a posh household, and Sponer, instantly smitten takes to parking his cab near her house, and becomes a bit of a stalker. The first thirty pages are taken up with his attempts to find out more about Marisabelle Raschitz, the niece of a countess. He follows her around, and she gets very fed up with him, walking rather than taking his cab. This didn’t warm me to Sponer at all, and the way he takes his girlfriend Marie for granted rankled too.

Then, he’s in the line of cabs at the station and the Paris train has just pulled in, he gets a customer. The man asks for the ‘Hotel Bristol’. Sponer asks him for clarification as there are two Hotel Bristols, Old and New. No reply. He asks again…

Sponer turned on the interior light and saw him leaning back heavily. His coat was undone and he was clutching his right side with both hands as though looking for something in his pocket. His head was slumped to one side and his mouth was half open.

He remained completely motionless.

The man was dead.

With the driver partition shut, and being stuck in traffic, with lorries backfiring etc, Sponer hadn’t heard the three shots or felt someone jump onto the running boards to do the dastardly deed. He checks the man, getting covered with blood in the process. He drives up to a policeman directing traffic and tries to tell him, shouting, ‘There’s a dead man in my car!’ to no avail. He drives to a police station, but they’re busy trying to restrain a burly drunk, and only half listen to his story, not taking it seriously.

This is where Sponer does something really silly, driving around, he impulsively decides to get rid of the body into the Danube, not before he empties his pockets though. Then, inexplicably, he decides to go to the Hotel Bristol to take the man’s room and check out his suitcases. Stupid or what? Anyway it all gets more and more convoluted from there as Sponer, panicked, ends up on the run, calling in favours to help him escape.

Paralleling Sponer’s impersonation of Jack Mortimer as the dead man is called, is the story of José Montemayor from New Mexico, his wives Consuela followed by Winifrid, and his encounters with said Mortimer, which provides all the background to propel the plot with Sponer towards its climax.

The Third Man (1949) with Joseph Cotten
silhouetted against the Vienna backstreets

What a strange story: a European take on gangster movies, possibly an influence on Greene’s The Third Man, noirish in character. With the exception of the long-suffering Marie and Marisabelle, who is mostly just spoilt (but we can sympathise with her as stalkee), no-one else is likeable in this novel, they’re all on the make one way or another. We do spend a lot of time with Sponer in his cab, mostly at night, driving all around Vienna–we get all the street-names–which got a little tedious for me, it’s a city I’ve never visited, and arguably only know through the film of The Third Man. Sponer is also a really bad driver, not paying attention to the traffic, he nearly crashes the whole time. Then, when the secondary plot began, I was thrown at first, until Mortimer is finally introduced.

At just over 200 pages in the Pushkin Collection edition, or 193 in the Pushkin Vertigo edition, it’s not a long read. It was intriguing though to read this European 1930s thriller, a bit different to the US noir, and Ambler etc I’m used to. (7.5/10)

See also: Maria Sofia’s review here, Kaggsy’s one here, and 1st Readings review here.

Source: Own copy. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

This takes my tally of European countries read for the European Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader to seven, and I’m also supporting #ReadIndies month this Feb, hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy

14 thoughts on “A case of act first, think later…

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I’d quite like to see one of those films and compare it with The Third Man which I’ve seen a couple of times but never read. I’ve visited Vienna twice and both times had a persistent earworm!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Love The Third Man – and that ending – where she just walks past in the cemetery! Vienna is on my list to visit one day, only been to the Tyrol / Salzburg in Austria.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was atmospheric, I’ll give you that. I wish the main character had been less self-absorbed though.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Sort of fun for me, I tired of the endless street names. I wonder if Greene saw the film when thinking about The Third Man.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    An unsympathetic protagonist is an interesting approach in a novel, one which may work better in a film I suspect. The title itself is intriguing, especially in its original form: I ought to revisit Pushkin’s catalogue, last looked at when I went through a phase of looking for Antal Szerb novels.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      For a 1930s European novel, the cast of characters is surprisingly wide with Americans, Mexicans and English in it. The author obvs watched too many early gangster movies I think!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I was rather put off by him effectively stalking Marisabelle at the beginning. But I can see the novel as a film.

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