The Hanging Artist by Jon Steinhagen
Abbadon Books, ebook, £4.99
Reviewed by John C Adams
I like a good mashup, so the concept of literary dystopian writer Franz Kafka as unwilling amateur sleuth was intriguing. However, this book was also billed as a surrealist fantasy. That’s a lot of ‘mashing’ going on across multiple genres, even before you factor in that it was also very funny. One way or another, there were times when I was experiencing an embarrassment of riches. The last time I felt like that I was reading a book of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, and by the end, my head was spinning.
The plot is quite simple, which is perhaps a good thing under the circumstances. It’s 1924 and Franz Kafka, a novelist, lays dying. He awakes from a fever dream to find a man-size insect nursing him. Meanwhile, twenty-two victims of bizarre strangulations have been found, and Inspector Beide arrives to ask Franz to help solve the crimes.
The cheeky tone of the insect’s dialogue helped establish a bizarre feel from the off. This was deepened by the subsequent adoption of a present-tense writing style redolent of stage directions for a play. Inspector Beide’s impromptu gender change in front of Franz’s eyes, which he accepts alongside all the other oddities occurring, continued the persistent air of unreality. In short, it was intentionally absurd and defiantly proud of that fact. I recently re-watched The Grand Budapest Hotel starring Ralph Fiennes, and this novel reminded me a lot of that film in its tone and imagery. Both were very clever, self-referential, and self-possessed enough to carry the thing off.
In reality, Franz Kafka did lay dying of tuberculosis in a Vienna sanitarium in 1924, at the age of only 40. The story is presented as a ‘What If’ alternative where he becomes well again. It is a clever idea, which worked and produced an interesting experience for the reader. However, I began to wonder if the whole narrative was a hallucination as the end came and he entered a fever dream from which he would never recover. There was something very sad about that conclusion because, after the multiple disappointments of his short life, I’ve always wanted to believe that he found peace as the end came.
Much as I appreciate surrealist fantasies in general, I’m also a big fan of Agatha Christie so on a personal level I prefer my murder mysteries served with only a touch of irony on the side, and I like them to be kept well away from anything to which labels such as ‘absurd’ or ‘postmodern’ could be applied. That said, one of my very favourite films is the original Pink Panther movie, which shows I can get on board with crime stories coupled with humour, provided they are so funny that the solving of the crime becomes an almost incidental aside as a vehicle for the comedy.
This is pretty much what happened here, and I enjoyed reading it very much.