Saturday 25 June 2011

Review of Mozart's Last Aria

Former Middle-Eastern correspondent Matt Rees is best known for his Palestinian based crime novels featuring the detective Omar Yussef. But for his latest book he has turned to an altogether more different milieu. Mozart’s Last Aria (published in hardback by Corvus), is a detective fantasy woven around the very real events surrounding Mozart’s death in 1791. Rees has taken many of the known facts, added some twists of his own and created a very absorbing thriller about the great composer’s sudden death.

Rees has taken the slightly risky strategy of having the book narrated by Nannerl, Mozart’s beloved sister; it is Nannerl herself who travels to Vienna to investigate the mystery surrounding Mozart’s death. That Nannerl had been estranged from Mozart and had not visited Vienna for some time means that she can explore events, persons and surroundings as a new comer and Rees is thus able to provide descriptions and explanatory details without having to overburden the narrative too much. Rees has a nice ear for dialogue and a neat way with scene setting, so that Nannerl’s Vienna becomes, quite believably, the Vienna of 1791.

The drawback is that this device requires the various characters, many of whom are aristocratic men, to open up to Nannerl in a way that might not have happened in the real Vienna of 1791, as Nannerl was neither aristocratic nor a man. But Rees creates a believable fantasy and providing we accept that we are reading fiction, not history, then all is well. After all Nannerl did not visit Vienna just after Mozart’s death and, so far as we know, never doubted that his death was from natural causes.

There is one other slight drawback in having Nannerl as the narrative voice; she is inclined to bring a vein of sentimentality into the proceedings. But this is entirely apt, after all women’s voices during that period could incline to the sentimental. But Rees also imbues his heroine with a degree of feistiness which is rather appealing as she wanders round Vienna, quizzing aristocrats, playing Mozart’s music, having numerous assignations in dubious places, learning a great deal about her brother’s final weeks.

Rees’s plot is full of delightful twists and turns and though it all turns out satisfactorily, it does so in a way which this reader could not have predicted. Inevitably there is quite a bit of Freemasonry in the book, but it is to Rees’s credit that his Masons are not automatically villains and that he has quite a nuanced view of the craft and the way it was practised in 18th century Austria.

Music plays a big role in various ways; Rees has written in the Epilogue how he based the structure of the book on a Mozart piano sonata. This type of recapitulatory structure works admirably well for such a work as a detective novel as we expect the closing sections to echo and re-work themes raised in the beginning section. But you can enjoy the novel whether or not you follow the work’s structure. Mozart’s own music forms another thread running through the book, with Nannerl constantly thinking of or playing her brother’s music. Rees uses the different pieces to cunningly suggest mood and you could imagine the book playing out to a live sound track. In fact it struck me that the publishers had missed a trick in not issuing the book with a companion CD.

There is a final musical element, one which takes the book away from straight detective fiction. Rees uses Mozart’s music and Nannerl’s memories to help explore what it was like for Mozart’s contemporaries to suddenly lose such a genius from their midst. Rees does this gently, without mawkishness and without ever endangering the book’s strong roots in classic detective fiction.
This is a most enjoyable novel, one which develops into a real page turner; so much so that, having read it once quickly to see how the plot develops, you feel you want to go back and read it again slowly so that you can savour the way Rees invokes Mozart’s Vienna.

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