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Otto Berliner investigates ... the…

Otto Berliner investigates ... the unfortunate victim (edition 2017)

by Greg Pyers

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Title:Otto Berliner investigates ... the unfortunate victim
Authors:Greg Pyers
Info:Brunswick, Victoria : Scribe Publications, 2017.
Collections:Your library
Tags:Crime, Paperback, Review, Australia

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The Unfortunate Victim by Greg Pyers



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Based on a true story, set in the Victorian Goldfields in the 1860's, THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM is part fiction, part reminder that life in those days, particularly for women, was not easy, pleasant or fair. When the body of young newly-wed Maggie Stuart is found in the home she shares with her much older husband it's all to easy to forget that young is around 17 years old, older husband means arranged / quickly married off for reasons that become apparent, and with family is often the least safe place you can be.

The dreadful circumstances in which Maggie has grown up, married, and died are carefully laid in this novel, avoiding the more gruesome details without glossing over the reality too heavily. The town of Daylesford in those days was a wild, frontier like place full of blow-in's and more established locals, with some downright nasty goings on. When the body of young Maggie is discovered, local police aren't particularly short of dodgy characters to consider - from her violent and particularly nasty stepfather, through to the co-owner of the local brothel, to say nothing of the mysterious tramp hanging around the area.

Flagged as an "Otto Berliner investigates ..." novel you'd be forgiven for wondering how much investigating he plans to do when his first appearance is well into the story, and for a rather short time into the bargain. For all his initial absence (he returns eventually to save the day with the able assistance of a concerned local), he's a promising character. A police detective about to leave the force for private detecting mostly due to frustration with the questionable methods and ham-fisted behaviour of many colleagues, Berliner is a cerebral, almost Poirot styled character. Doing his initial detecting on the case of the suspect tried for the murder of Maggie Stuart by way of letters and newspaper reports, with a third party doing some local enquiring for him has a distinct Christie ring about it - although the brutality of the world that Berliner occupies is nowhere near the drawing room niceties of her more traditional settings.

The unusual styling of THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM will undoubtedly throw some readers slightly. The idea that the hero of the day is very slow to arrive, and the sheer volume of the courtroom proceedings towards the centre of the book may be slightly off-putting. It's an unusual way to introduce a new character for whom, presumably there are plans for more stories, but if you stick with it you are given plenty of glimpses of who Otto Berliner is and where he's likely to be heading.

https://www.austcrimefiction.org/review/unfortunate-victim-greg-pyers ( )
  austcrimefiction | Apr 13, 2017 |
The Author's Note says
"This story is based on a murder committed in the gold-mining town of Daylesford, Australia in 1864. The names of some characters have been changed, but all the characters herein are based on real people."

In fact many of the names of the characters are not changed.

The first two thirds of the book deal with the murder and the subsequent 3 day trial. My research shows that the author relied very heavily on the newspaper records of the time, sometimes using them almost verbatim. This part reminded me very much of what Truman Capote called a non-fiction novel.

At first two suspects are jailed for the murder of Maggie Stuart, but one is eventually released. The other spends 7 months in jail as the police build a case against him. Most of the evidence is circumstantial and some vital evidence is totally missing,

Otto Berliner is an inspector in the Victoria Police, on leave, hoping to set himself up in the near future as a private detective. He does not attend the trial, but a friend does, and he takes notes which Berliner later finds useful.

Berliner goes to New Zealand for some time and returns just a week or so before the convicted murderer is due to be executed. He is convinced that the convicted man is innocent, and so from this time, there is a race against time to see if he can discover the murderer and get a stay of execution.

I think the structure of the novel worked against the building of real tension until the final few pages. However it does present the case against the police well, as being too quick to adopt an easy solution, and too lazy to ask real questions. ( )
  smik | Feb 9, 2017 |
Starting at the end of 1864 and taking place in fledgling gold-mining town of Daylesford, THE UNFORTUNATE VICTIM tells the story of the brutal murder of a newly married young woman and the attempts to catch her killer. As the story unfolds readers realise the book’s title may have a dual meaning; referring both to slain woman Maggie Stuart and the man who becomes the prime suspect in her murder.

We are told that the book is ‘based on a true story’ (the real-life murder of a woman called Margaret Graham) but I’ve no idea how close to the truth this book’s storyline stays as it depicts the somewhat arbitrary identification and subsequent conviction of a travelling labourer for the crime. I’m curious about which aspects of the story might be true but I shan’t say more for fear of spoilers. Here anyway the investigatory and legal proceedings suffer from a lack of evidentiary and procedural rigour but it’s easy to scoff from my 21st Century vantage point. At the time even the notion of using fingerprints as a means of identification was more than a decade in the future, let alone more advanced forensic sciences. What we – and poor Maggie Stuart – are left with is an officialdom consisting primarily of amateurs and a whole lot of guesswork. The bright spot is Detective Otto Berliner. Now working in Melbourne and proposing to become a private enquiry agent due to his dissatisfaction with the colony’s police force, Berliner has previously worked in Daylesford with much success and it is no real surprise when he is called on to assist the local police.

With historical fiction the setting has to feel authentic for the story to be a success and this one does. The social attitudes, the environment, the clothing, the buildings…Pyers makes it easy to imagine oneself in the Daylesford of 150 years ago when it was a far cry from the high-end spa town it is today. And if for a moment you forget what modern creature comforts might have been missing in this era the scenes involving a delayed search in a cesspit will remind you. Rarely I have been more grateful to have been born after the invention of indoor sewerage.

The publicity material for the book describes its central character as charming but I can’t say I found him so. Like many fictional sleuths he is too egotistical for that. I did find him interesting though which is why I was a bit miffed there was relatively little of him in the book. He really only plays a small part in proceedings until about the half-way point and for me that led to the book lacking a little focus. I might not have minded so much but for the setting of my expectations by the cover proclaiming this loudly to be an Otto Berliner investigation (I was muttering under my breath about him needing to show himself). On the up side though this lack of our hero in the early stages of the book does allow lots of time for the suspect pool town’s residents to be introduced in some detail. We also get to meet a local photographer who becomes Berliner’s eyes and ears for a time and I enjoyed this aspect of the book. Tom, his sensible wife and his observant son will make good regulars if this is set to become a series.

My other minor gripe is also to do with the management of expectations in that this book is labelled by its publisher as a ‘cosy crime’ novel. While it does take place in the kind of socially intimate setting that label might suggest it is very definitely not a book that downplays the violence associated with crime. I know someone who only reads cosy crime novels and I cannot imagine her getting past the explicit and extensive description of the brutality experienced by the victim here. Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the content of the book – it’s not gratuitous – but if a readers are led to expect one kind of thing and find another at least some of them won’t be happy.

On reflection most of my very minor complaints about this enjoyable book are more to do with its publisher’s publicity decisions than the book’s content. The book itself is entertaining, the historical setting well realised and the tension – especially during the second half of the book – is quite palpable. I did not expect the resolution (which makes me wonder if it’s close to the truth) and I would happily read a future instalment of the adventures of Otto Berliner.
  bsquaredinoz | Jan 31, 2017 |
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