Set in Vienna in 1909, this fantasia of murder and mystery ably evokes the twilight of the Hapsburg reign, summoning forth a vivid, sepia-tinged image of a civilization marked by rigid hierarchy, febrile sentiment, and casual decadence. The book, scarcely longer than a novella, melds the clue-hunt structure of a Sherlock Holmes story to the vertigo-like mood of a Kafka tale. Eugen Bischoff, a venerated “court actor,” is in a fitful state. Even as he entertains guests at his suburban villa, he worries over possible investment losses, over his forthcoming performance as Richard III, over a story that he heard about a young naval officer who inexplicably killed himself. Bischoff then retreats to a pavilion on his estate—and inexplicably kills himself.
Narrating these goings-on is one Baron von Yosch, whom other guests quickly suspect of driving the actor to suicide (von Yosch had long coveted Bischoff’s wife), and who desperately undertakes an investigation of the riddle at hand. Strong hints of the supernatural haunt his quest, and the whole affair ends on a note of indeterminacy that places it at some remove from the rationality-governed precincts of the detective genre. The title, and part of the solution, derive from the lore that surrounds a fictional 16th-century “master” painter who produced lurid renditions of Judgment Day as described in the Bible, that earlier saga of open-ended mystery.
[ADDENDUM: I see on the Wikipedia page for Leo Perutz a sign that my reading of this tale is hardly original: “Austrian fellow novelist Friedrich Torberg once characterized Perutz’ literary style as the possible result of a little infidelity of Franz Kafka and Agatha Christie.” Also according to Wikipedia, there’s a literary critic who cited the book as “one of the thirteen best non-supernatural horror novels.” But, as I suggest, Master isn’t so much “non-supernatural” as it is open to several readings, one of which involves the intervention of an otherworldly force. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of The Burning Court, a classic John Dickson Carr novel that similarly blends history, myth, and murder, and then tops it all off with a sly, multiple-choice conclusion.]