Dan Vyleta’s The Quiet Twin is like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” gone wrong-er.
There’s no Technicolor; imagine everyone is dressed in black, and that some individuals conceal an over-sized pocket-knife.
Instead of the director cameo, there is a little blonde girl with pigtails and a tidy menacing moustache painted on with shoe polish.
In the opening montage, dogs are fed sausages stuffed with nails, so that they bleed to death from the inside.
Then, imagine that things get dark.
Readers would expect that, if they are aware that the story takes place in Vienna, in October and early November 1939. Those were dark days.
And, indeed, it is night when readers first meet Doctor Beer and see him look outside.
“Her gaze, he noted, was fixed outwards, past the branches of the chestnut tree and across the courtyard. He crossed the room and stood next to her; gauged the angle of her eyes.”
That’s right: he is looking, but he is following the gaze of another. He tries to decipher what she is seeing.
In these wartime years, it is not necessarily what one sees oneself that matters; it’s all about trying to figure out what someone else might see, or what they think that they see, or what they could insist that they did see (and report on).
“She seemed to be looking at a window almost straight across, located in the rear wing of the apartment building which had no direct street access, and cheaper rents.”
What the doctor sees on this single evening is not what the woman sees; she sees an episode in a broader tableau, whereas he has been careful not to look, so this is his first exposure.
In these years, even more so than in some others, choosing not to see is essential for survival.
The act of observing is risky; making others aware that you are observing carries an even greater risk.
A risk of what? But that’s the thing. Anything. It could be anything.
Sitting here, reading in 2011, we know things that Doctor Beer and this woman do not.
When someone refers to a couple that has gone away, readers in 2011 hypothesize as to their fate based on what’s been said and what’s been written in history books (and novels).
But in 1939, in The Quiet Twin, Doctor Beer and this woman — and the apartment building’s other inhabitants — live in that reality day-to-day. They do not have this knowledge, only an endless stream of unknowns and amorphous dangers.
The story, however, begins with a death. Nothing vague about that.
And although this death is the sort that might have been overlooked in different times, there is a particular interest in it because of the influence wielded by one character.
This man has a position of note. He has powerful friends. One has to anticipate the direction of his gaze.
But this is not an easy case to resolve. Doctor Beer is enlisted in the effort, but there are more questions than answers.
And those involved — even as only observers — are aware that what could be said is no longer the same as what will be said. Many will remain quiet, about this death, about many others.
“‘Too many suspects…. If this was a detective yarn, I mean. A reader cannot remember more than two or three.'”
And, throughout the investigation (which is partly, yes, an investigation, but also a lot of just ordinary living in extraordinary times), there is a constant tension, an overwhelming sense that, although things may look to be as they have always been, nothing is the same.
“She recoiled from the window, bit her lip; drew close again after counting to a hundred, and found his eyes still peering across, the hand raised, ready to punch.”
The characters — and, through them, readers — are constantly waiting for the punch to land. They may be, as this woman, alone and silent, but nobody is safe.
The language itself reflects this desperation, this fearfulness.
For one, her breath is “a broken whistle groping for a tune”. For another listener, a woman’s “heels [were] very noisy as though she were punishing the stairs”. The prose is saturated with it.
“You’ve been writing a novel, I see. Cute.” So says one character. But there is nothing cute about Dan Vyleta’s second novel.
The Quiet Twin is quietly and intensely unsettling; it does everything that a good story is meant to do.