“When I set out to write The Crooked Maid,” says Dan Vyleta in the acknowledgements to his 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated novel, “I had contracted the Balzacian bug.” Vyleta’s reference is appropriate, since the 19th-century French social realist’s fingerprints are all over The Crooked Maid, as are those of numerous other literary influences, including Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Graham Greene.
Generically, Vyleta’s novel is a mongrel (to use a term the author deploys in a racially charged context within the book): part thriller, part courtroom drama, part love story, part meditation on the psychological aftereffects of war. It is perhaps inevitable that not all aspects of the book work equally well.
The setting for the bulk of the novel is post-war Vienna in the year 1948. The opening scene features a meeting on a train between Anna Beer, who is returning to the city to locate her estranged husband, and a teenaged boarding-school student named Robert Seidel. Robert’s stepfather has been hospitalized after falling out a window at his home; when he dies, Robert’s stepbrother, Wolfgang, a former SS officer, is charged with parricide. Somewhat understandably, Robert’s mother prefers opium oblivion to dealing with her family situation.
As Anna tries to locate her husband, who has gone missing, she falls in with a shady – and potentially dangerous – former POW named Karel Neumann. Robert, meanwhile, finds himself growing ever closer to Anneliese Grotter, an orphaned hunchback who has changed her name to Eva and is now employed as a maid in the Seidel household.
Vyleta’s skill at handling an admittedly Byzantine plot is admirable, even if it requires a reader, in the words of the novel, “to believe in coincidence as the prime mover of all story.” The author’s confidence rarely wavers, and he displays a high degree of proficiency in moving his various chess pieces across the board.
However, there are elements of the writing that are overwrought, particularly several lengthy descriptions of the city and its burned-out buildings. Vyleta cannily intimates that the war has rendered even the most important edifices – such as the courthouse – decrepit and haggard, but a little of this goes a long way.
Moreover, the stylized dialogue, which evokes the cadences of a 1940s Hollywood movie, lends the novel a certain mustiness in places. When not one, but two separate characters compare a tussle in the street to the Old Testament battle between Jacob and the angel, it is clear that too much authorial self-indugence can drag down even the most carefully structured plots.