While literature from Eastern Europe is certainly available in the U.S., it isn't usually marketed as such, and, at least in the brick and mortar stores, is mixed in with writing from all over the world. That's too bad, as just the smattering of authors from that region that I've accidentally come across over the years are almost always excellent and intriguing, and it would be nice to have them all conveniently shelved together. Karel Capek, Jaroslav Hasek, Kafka, Bruno Schulz - to name the handful I'm familiar with - all so disparate, yet original and timeless, and all writing from what must have been a golden age for literature in that part of the world, the two decades between the wars. Simply knowing that an author was attached to the region and writing in the twenties and thirties is enough for me to take a risk on them, even if I don't know anything else.
That is how I approached Leo Perutz, and "The Master of the Day of Judgment". Writing from Vienna, Perutz had been born in Prague, and after I got that far in the introduction, I stopped reading and bought the book. My expectations were probably too high - secretly I hoped I'd made another personal discovery of a little known author and a masterpiece - but while Perutz was definitely little known to me, 'Master' is an average mystery story with only limited appeal.
It can be difficult to judge a work like this, as what may have been original for its time suffers in comparison with decades' worth of work by emulators and admirers. All genre fiction, including the detective story, builds on previous stories, and it's rare that the original stays timeless. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is one of the few that I know of that incorporated several elements into a new gestalt, and yet, even after many direct rip-offs, homages, and parodies, still holds sway over a large segment of the public's imagination.
"The Master of the Day of Judgment", as far as I could tell, contained nothing that powerful, and nothing special enough to urge it on the present day casual fan of detective fiction. After finishing, what I'm most reminded of is Wilkie Collins "The Moonstone", and I'd definitely recommend 'Master' to the fans of Collins work. Except "The Master" is probably an even tighter constructed novel than "The Moonstone", but all in all, there must be dozens, if not hundreds of novels that rate a higher spot on the mystery reader's reading list.
Told from the perspective of the Austrian Army officer Baron Yosch, 'Master' follows a spate of suspicious suicides, one of which seems to implicate the officer as an accessory. At first inclined to run from the situation, he changes his mind (partly due to the persuasion of another who was present nearby at the time of the suicide), and looks for the common threads that bind these deaths together. He is assisted by a character named Waldemar Solgrub, a Holmesian type who is the first to deduce that Yosch played no part in forcing anyone into such an extreme measure, and Dr. Gorsky, a friend of the Baron's.
I thought the resolution of the mystery somewhat far-fetched, though no more than what I've read in other detective fiction. Without giving too much away, I did think there was some interesting imagery concerning a hallucinogenic state the Baron experiences near the end of the book, but the final twist seems a bit like cheating. In the end, what may be of more interest in 'Master' is not the story, but the wealth of detail and description of social behavior during the turn of the century. In fact, though written in the late twenties, Perutz was close enough to the time he was writing (1909) that he must have taken it for granted that the reader would understand his character's actions without any explanation at all. I'm sure I missed some of the inferences because of that, though I don't think it impeded the story any. Depending on one's knowledge of the times, it might make this novel more interesting or more frustrating.
This edition has an introduction by Dr. Fritz Wittels written in 1930, which is extremely dated and an excellent example of an elitist blowhard tossing off fatuous statements that sound ridiculous three-quarters of a century later, and naively foolish after the Second World War. (It takes a blowhard to recognize a blowhard) If the reader can get past him though, he'll find a serviceable mystery sufficient to hold his interest through to the end, which is really all one can ask of any book. Three and a half stars.