Review: The Hapsburg Variation by Bill Rapp

The Hapsburg Variation by Bill Rapp is the second book in the Cold War Thriller series (available December 1, 2017).

Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. Readers of The Hapsburg Variation will undoubtedly reference this truism since it’s a guiding principle for protagonist Karl Baier.

It seemed to Karl Baier as though he could never escape history, certainly not while working for the CIA. Not that he minded. He enjoyed slicing through the bureaucratic maze that came with any large organization, especially government ones. He had joined the Agency eight years ago at its inception in 1947 and found that studying the past helped. Especially working as the deputy chief of staff in Austria.

In the spring of 1955, Baier is summoned in the wee hours to bear witness to a dead body. Alongside the Austrian authorities are three other men: a French military intelligence officer, a British civilian like Baier, and a “lower ranking officer from the regular Soviet military.” The four men represent the Allied Powers.

When Baier returns home that night, a stranger is waiting for him in his kitchen. An unusually bold housebreaker, the gentleman greets Baier with a fresh cup of coffee and asks for his help in investigating how this corpse came to be found on a riverbank. Bill Rapp’s attention to small details makes the post-war scene come alive, like when Baier notices small tells from the enigmatic suit-wearing night visitor:

It looked as though he had tried—without really wanting to—to hide a set of broad shoulders and a waist that appeared to be growing with his country’s postwar prosperity. Baier could not see the man’s shoes hidden as they were underneath the table. He had learned that a good way to judge a man’s true standing and situation in postwar Europe was to assess his footwear.

Their conversation is circuitous; the man alternates between flattery and impatience but always returns to the same point: for Austria to “stay free,” it needs America’s “help and understanding” in the person of the CIA deputy chief of staff. The conversation ends badly. Baier asks how to contact the man.

The Austrian paused and considered Baier with a gaze as cold and hard as stone. “That will not be necessary.”

Baier stood and watched his visitor walk toward the door. By now he had concluded the man was a complete asshole. He had invaded his home, issued orders, and refused to identify himself. “Well, that’s convenient, for you anyway. Can you at least give me the man’s name? The dead one, I mean. Do you know that much yet?”

The man is Herr Heinrich Rudolph von Rudenstein, a minor aristocrat from a family that “served with distinction for generations in the Hapsburg army.” Possibly of significance, the family lands “originally extended over the border into modern Hungary.” Not anymore, Baier thinks to himself. On his way out the door, the Austrian imparts a sinister warning.

“You might want to be sure that your wife returns home from visiting her family near Leipzig.” The Austrian paused again to study the floor as though weighing his words. “It may be best if she were not in a position that would bring extra pressure to bear upon you while this investigation is underway.”

How did the man know where his wife was? Baier is worried but decides to go ahead with the investigation, recognizing both “excitement and suspense in the midst of a dangerous and changing world.” The request to help solve the mystery comes at a critical time for Austria, as “the four Allied Powers are set to sign the State Treaty, which will return Austria’s independence, end the country’s post-war occupation, and hopefully reduce tensions in the heart of Europe.”

Baier soon comes to wonder if someone—an individual or a group—is trying to prevent the Treaty from being signed. Adding to the tension, Baier realizes he’s being followed by some skillful operatives. He travels to von Rudenstein’s family estate, interviews fellow intelligence agents in Austria, and makes a quick trip to London to carry on his inquiries, all the while imploring his wife to return home as quickly as possible.

The Hapsburg Variation is a subtle “Cold War Thriller” that moves into high gear when Baier’s wife is kidnapped “and the mission becomes intensely personal.” It’s a worthy addition to Bill Rapp’s Cold War series that began with Tears of Innocence.

Armchair historians might want to turn to Margaret McMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 after they finish The Hapsburg Variation because the root causes of Cold War tension in Europe go back generations.

Read an excerpt from The Hapsburg Variation!


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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