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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Man lebt nur zweimal

Johannes Mario Simmel

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Title: Man lebt nur zweimal
Author: Johannes Mario Simmel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1950
Length: 183 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Man lebt nur zweimal - Deutschland
  • Ein Kriminalroman.
  • Man lebt nur zweimal has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : quite enjoyable doubles-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Man lebt nur zweimal ('You only live twice') is narrated by actor Peter Gordon, a thirty-four-year-old star of a still thriving postwar Austrian film scene. In a short introductory section he presents himself, and notes how he had every reason to be satisfied with his life: successful, popular, happily in love (with actress Clarissa Thorwald), he had no reason for complaint -- until 12 January 1950, when, at the premiere of his latest film, someone took aim at him with a revolver and put two bullets in his chest, killing him. Which is certainly not a bad way to start a mystery -- to have the apparent victim describe his own murder.
       Of course, there's more to it than that, and to tell the story proper Gordon briefly jumps back, to 8 January. The mystery of how he managed to get himself killed and yet still can tell his story is cleared up pretty quickly: a few days before it happened, Gordon is on set, finishing up the filming -- and moaning about having to go to the premiere -- and hatches a plan with Reinhard, a man who isn't just his stand-in but is a true double: "Er sah mir so unglaublich ähnlich, daß man uns ohne weiteres für Zwillinge halten konnte" ('He looked so unbelievably like me that one could have easily taken us for twins'). He asks Reinhard to take his place at the premiere -- without telling anyone -- and for a payoff of a thousand schillings Reinhard agrees. The only other person who knows that the two are switching places is Werner Romm, present at the meeting when Reinhard agrees to the plan, and the only one whom Gordon tells about his actual plans -- just in case something important happens, so someone will know how to get in touch with him.
       It's Romm who then appears at Gordon's weekend hideaway in the country early in the morning of the 13th with the bad news. [Disappointingly, Simmel gets the (week)days mixed up here: although he clearly dates the murder to 12 January 1950, he presents 13 January as a Sunday; 13 January actually fell on a Friday that year.] Gordon's sensible initial reaction is to go to the police and clear things up, but Romm talks him out of it. It seems obvious that Gordon was the intended target -- there had already been an earlier attempt, during filming, which had looked like an accident but wasn't --, and Romm argues that if whoever wanted to kill him learns he's actually still alive they'd immediately go after him again. (Apparently, there was little reason to believe that the police could keep the information secret once they learned the truth, or then protect Gordon .....) So instead Gordon pretends he's Reinhard while they try to figure out who wants him so permanently out of the way.
       People -- even those close to him -- have no trouble taking Gordon for Reinhard -- the fake mustache is apparently all it takes to convince them. In this role, Gordon also quickly learns some surprising things about some of those he thought he was closest to -- and also that there was apparently more to Reinhard than he ever knew. Indeed, Reinhard's own dark history seemed to have been catching up to him, as had some more recent gambling debts. There might not exactly have been a price on Reinhard's head, but quite a few people wanted quite a lot from him, and so Gordon doesn't find himself that much safer in this new role. And then there were the women who were involved with Reinhard -- quite the surprise to Gordon.
       Another attempt on his life, and another murder victim complicate the situation even more, and Gordon-as-Reinhard finds himself to be not just a big target but also a prime suspect. It's a fairly clever variation on the impersonation-thriller, with Simmel not taking the most obvious paths -- Gordon doesn't get completely stuck in the Reinhard-role, for example, but even when he can convince various people of who he truly is, his position remains precarious.
       The resolution doesn't come entirely out of the blue -- and in the show-down scene Gordon even plausibly claims to have had his suspicions from early on -- but, like Simmel's Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch this isn't a whodunnit that readers could have figured out themselves, relying instead on facts not in evidence until Simmel finally spells it all out. It's a bit forced -- annoyingly, as in Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch, both culminating in a speeding-car-scene (perhaps a more effective symbol of a last, desperate getaway attempt in 1950, but certainly feeling like a very tired trick/scene for contemporary readers) and relying by way of an explanation for significant parts of the reasons behind the crimes on things that happened far away and years earlier (in this case, Reinhard's previous life in Germany) -- but the path Simmel leads Gordon down in getting there is fairly entertaining and mostly well done.
       A few period-touches add a bit to the overall enjoyment too -- including one of the technical difficulties they face: simply placing a telephone call to Berlin, to get some information (as apparently at that time the connections were still so limited that you had to know someone at the post office (which ran the telephone lines in both Austria and Germany at the time) to set up a call -- and even that took a few hours).
       Man lebt nur zweimal is a minor work, but already a major step up from Der Mörder trinkt keine Milch; you can practically see Simmel getting on track here, the elements that made his later work so successful -- the elaborate but well-conceived plots, the different character-types and how they work off each other (including the confident but not quite in the know protagonist, repeatedly confronted by the very unexpected) -- already present. Parts -- including in the resolution -- are too rough and simple, but on the whole it's an entertaining little work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 August 2018

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Johannes Mario Simmel: Other books by Johannes Mario Simmel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bestselling Austrian author Johannes Mario Simmel lived 1924 to 2009

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