Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid pulls readers into a suspenseful, dark tale as swiftly as the train carrying Anna Beer and Robert Siedal pulls into the Vienna station.
Although it does share some characters with the author’s previous novel, The Quiet Twin, it can be read as a standalone novel.
Both novels are suffused with tension, darkness, and the sense that the travellers in the next compartment are observing something horrifying that is just out of the reader’s sight.
Sometimes this ominous feeling is tangible.
“Dark caws, the scrape of claws upon unvarnished wood, then the muffled clap of wings on air and a dance of four-toed, hopping acclamation. The birds were preaching again, a rhythm of call and multi-voiced response. It sank into her sleep and commandeered her childhood memories rode them raw against their inclinations.”
Sometimes the reader is shielded from darkness.
“There were two sets of curtains, one behind the other. The inner was a sheer curtain made from cotton lace; the outer, a heavy velvet drape in a vivid shade of bronze. It proved impossible to shut the window with both curtains hanging out: the velvet was too thick. She tried several times, putting her weight against the glass.”
What is yet undiscovered, what is concealed: the reader of The Crooked Maid is always peering behind a curtain, often discovering something of queer and unexpected contrast.
“The room at whose door Eva stopped was quiet. She knocked and turned the handle with one motion, found the door resistant to her push. She tried again, pushed harder; earned a yelp, the dance of agitated paws, the door flying open on a narrow, dirty room.”
In The Quiet Twin, the question of perspective was vitally important, both to the story and the craft of telling it.
In The Crooked Maid, this is equally but differently true.
What one sees, what one knows to be true: these characters struggle to define their own vision of the world around them, so dramatically altered in the past decade.
As with the elements of atmosphere, the theme of perspective is sometimes presented overtly, as with this striking passage about a hand-crafted glass eye.
“Anna held her breath and kept staring at the eye. It was very intricately worked, the iris structured into layers, clear amber grains embedded in three shades of blue, each a snowflake pattern radiating from the pupil’s central well. In the bright light of the morgue the eye’s milky glass had turned transparent, become infused with something like an inner glow. A root system of capillaries spread from the depths of it: tender, light-pink tendrils fanning out towards the surface and the light. The lid that clung to its outer edges gave it a frame of amber lashes, each gently curving outwards, away from the glass. It was a lovely, human eye, alive with an intelligence intrinsic to its design. The dead man watched her coldly, without judgment.”
And, sometimes, the question of perspective and sightlines appears in an altered guise in the story.
“Hunched and freezing, the man with the red scarf was sitting down in his cellar in a parallelogram of pale November light, threading black thread through the eye of a needle. The parallelogram kept moving, renegotiating its angles, taking orders from the sun. He followed it doggedly, inch for inch and foot for foot, then swapped it for its twin when the patch of light was beginning to reach the wall.”
The reader is in a similar position to this red-scarfed man. He and the reader follow the light that Dan Vyleta casts upon the narrative, following and shifting (arguably, leading) as required.
Not only does the narrative proper leave many of the reader’s questions unanswered, but there is a framing narrative to unravel as well.
There are also occasional remarks which appear to be offered to readers as hints.
(My favourite from The Quiet Twin was this: “Too many suspects…. If this was a detective yarn, I mean. A reader cannot remember more than two or three.”)
In The Crooked Maid, Dan Vyleta writes:
“Chekov said that if you introduce a gun in Act One, it has to go off in Act Three.
He does not tell us what happens if you introduce it in Act Three.
With the framing narrative, these short addresses take on a peculiar significance. The reader senses that there is something to see, to take note of, but perhaps it is behind a curtain.
The italicized segments of narrative have a similar effect on the reader. They surround the story proper and are clearly connected to the story as observations on this post-war world, and yet they feel remarkably disparate stylistically.
This adds to the sense of things being slightly-off-kilter until, finally, with the novel’s final passages, the gap (that readers may have perceived, but which did not, in fact exist) is breached and secured.
The Crooked Maid is an outstanding story, and behind its curtain is a writer to watch.