Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
For centuries, Vienna has been a city of elegance and sophistication, a crossroads of Central Europe and a cultural interface between East and West. It is an energetic, uplifting city where the strains of Mozart, Haydn, and Strauss seem to float on the air. During the Cold War, though, by virtue of its location so close to the Iron Curtain, Vienna became something else—a convenient place for opportunists of all sorts to carry on in the shadows of its alleys and side streets. Soviet and American spies hobnobbed easily with black market profiteers with loyalty to no one and nothing, except hard cash.
Nothing is more evocative of this atmosphere than “The Third Man,” Carol Reed’s immortal noir film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. The film is distinctive for its noir atmosphere, its expressionistic cinematography, and its score, which is played by a single zither. The plot revolves around an American ex-pat, played by Orson Welles, who is supposedly murdered for trafficking in black-market penicillin.
Geza Tatrallyay knows Vienna well and pays homage to “The Third Man” in the initial chapters of his debut novel “Twisted Reasons,” by borrowing a few elements of the film’s plot, notably his protagonist’s name (“Holly Martins” becomes “Greg Martens”) and profession (crime novelist), the mysterious death of his friend (Harry Lime then, Adam Kallay now) in a car accident, and a Russian girlfriend of Lime/Kallay’s threatened with deportation to Russia.
In “Twisted Reasons,” Martens comes to Vienna to visit his childhood friend Kallay. But upon arrival, he finds that Kallay is dead, possibly murdered. An Interpol agent based in Vienna, Anne Rossiter, informs him that Kallay, who worked for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, had stumbled on a scheme to steal 10 kgs of enriched plutonium from the Mayak nuclear facility, a Soviet-era plant, and sell it on the black market. Unsavory associates of Kallay’s appear, and both they and Interpol try to steer Martens away from investigating Kallay’s death. But Kallay’s girlfriend, Julia Saparova, a Russian physicist working illegally as an exotic dancer, helps Martens discover what Kallay was really up to. Martens travels to Russia with Interpol close on his heels, desperately trying to prevent what the whole world fears most: terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb.
But where the film sticks to the dark passageways of Vienna and the gritty intrigues of post-war profiteers, Tatrallyay goes farther afield both geographically and thematically. “Twisted Reasons” is the first of a projected trilogy of thrillers dealing with international trafficking in arms and human beings, and the writing in this first volume is infused with impassioned outrage. Tatrallyay has done copious research and tells a detailed story of the simply unbelievable environmental and human cost wrought at the Mayak nuclear facility, the actual scene of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. He brings this alive in two ways, both devastating. The first is through flashbacks to Martens’s Hungarian grandmother speaking about the persecution of her family by Soviet authorities, the disappearance of her first husband—Martens’s grandfather—and her harrowing escape to the West. That makes the reader feel. Then Tatrallyay has the reader see. The drive from the airport at Chelyabinsk to Mayak is a descent into a unique kind of modern hell. The landscape is an ecological wasteland, a site of devastating environmental damage due to decades of USSR’s negligent disposal of nuclear waste. The people, too, are scarred and disease-ridden. The devastation is total and horrific.
In the guise of a relentlessly paced thriller, Tatrallyay has delivered an impassioned plea for justice and awareness.
Twisted Reasons is published by Deux Voiliers Publishing.