I’ve wanted to set a full-length novel in Vienna for a long time but couldn’t find a way of doing it that avoided the pitfalls of using such an iconic location. Most notably, how do you write about Vienna and avoid the long cinematic shadows cast by Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”, written by the great master of shady locations, Graham Greene?
I wanted to be able to use the historic inner city, I wanted to be able to set scenes in one of the famous cafés, but I didn’t want to write a book that was nostalgic for some imagined past of spies and racketeers and secret agents. After all, it’s worth remembering that Greene’s story was remarkably modern for its time, dealing with the disturbing side-effects of a penicillin racket in a city destroyed by war.
Then by chance I met an old friend I hadn’t seen for a long time, someone involved (legally, I should add) in the field of surveillance. That friend talked to me about the rapid advances in the field in the time since we’d last met, and I saw my way into this story and this city.
Freddie Makin would be a surveillance contractor. Here he would be, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in the midst of its grand architecture, with afternoons in traditional cafés and walks along foggy cobbled streets, a city of romance and intrigue, and he’d be seeing none of it. Freddie’s attention would be entirely on the Chinese academic he’s being paid to watch.
It’s only when that job goes terribly wrong and Freddie’s own life is endangered that he’s forced to open up to a city that he’s been residing (but not living) in for the last year. So we see Vienna along with Freddie, as if for the first time, and we see it as a place of youth and modernism as much as a city of history and tradition.
This is most visible in the ultra-modern, ultra-hip setting of the hotel madhouse, based on a real hotel, the 25 Hours, which I discovered on a trip to the city with fellow writers Alex Barclay and Simon Kernick. It’s in this glass cube of a hotel that Freddie is restored to life, even as his unknown enemies are closing in and trying to kill him.
And ironically, given the cinematic heritage I was trying to escape, I knew I’d achieved my aim when the book started getting a lot of film attention. Because all the interested parties fell in love with the characters rather than the setting, and even when they did talk about setting it was in the hope that the madhouse was based on a real hotel – it is, and if you want to pay a visit, you’ll find it in a very 21st Century Vienna.
To Die in Vienna is published by Thomas & Mercer on June 14th. As Welcome to Vienna film rights have sold to Focus Features and Nine Stories (the production company of Jake Gyllenhaal who’ll star as Freddie Makin).