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The Fig Eater: A Novel Paperback – March 6, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Penzler Pick, May 2000: It is 1910 Vienna, and a woman's body has been found in the Volksgarten. She is Dora--Freud's famous patient. The Inspector (whose name we never learn) is painstakingly trying to put together the circumstances of her death with the help of the principles outlined in the 1901 book System der Kriminalistik, the first tome to attempt a psychological approach to understanding crime. The Inspector's wife, Erszébet, meanwhile, is drawn to this murder for reasons she doesn't understand and decides to investigate using her own methodology, derived from the Gypsy folklore she grew up with in Hungary.

What separates The Fig Eater from ordinary mystery fiction is the look it offers at detective work in the early 20th century, as the methods used moved from folklore and ignorance to the scientific. Photography of the era often resulted in the loss of fingers. Forensic methods so familiar to us now were unheard of, and the use of psychological profiling to capture killers was a young science unknown by most of the general populace.

Shields introduces the reader to Dora's family and acquaintances, giving depth to the characters only briefly discussed in Freud's case study of Dora. She takes liberties with the historical record (this is, after all, a novel) but creates a plausible scenario of what might have happened while depicting a brooding turn-of-the-century Vienna replete with gorgeous details of food, fashion, botany, and manners. The film rights have been optioned by Miramax, and if the author had her way, she says, it would star Liam Neeson and Judi Dench. --Otto Penzler --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Fashion writer Shields (All That Glitters; A Stylish History) achieves atmospheric suspense in her compelling first novel, set in 1910 in Freud's Vienna. It opens on the discovery of the grisly murder of a young woman, Dora (whose name recalls Freud's famous patient), found strangled in a disreputable part of town. Two separate investigations are launched, only one official. The unnamed Inspector, with his assistant, Franz, begins with the physical evidence at the scene, and later watches for telltale signals from his initial crop of suspects: Dora's mother and father, her lover and his wife. He interprets their reactions by means of his growing familiarity with psychoanalysis, a pioneering work of which is excerpted throughout the novel. Meanwhile, his wife, Ersz?bet, an amateur painter and Hungarian mystic, begins her own clandestine inquiries with the help of a young English governess, Wally. Their first substantial piece of evidence is the undigested fig removed from Dora's stomach. They become convinced that this is the key to solving the case, as figs cannot grow in Vienna's cold winters and are apparently not imported fresh from warmer climes. Ersz?bet also believes that Gypsy spells and superstitions might divine knowledge about the crime, while the Inspector searches more or less by the book. These two very different styles of inquiry lead to discoveries that keep the competing sleuths neck-and-neck until the final pages. Though the plot is intricate and the mystery promising, Shields's language can be uneven. Often lushly descriptive, at times the prose is restrained to the point of detachment, somewhat distancing the reader from the characters. A sprinkling of Hungarian legend and Gypsy lore adds another layer of color to Shields's evocation of the era, while literary references, contemporary art, medical theories, occult practices, botanical information and the engaging details of Viennese life build a picture of a city in the throes of turbulent intellectual and social change. 5-city author tour; U.K. rights sold to Doubleday/Black Swan; film rights sold to Miramax. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st Back Bay Ppbk Ed. March 2001 edition (March 6, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316785261
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316785266
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,093,798 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By M. H. Bayliss on July 18, 2002
Format: Paperback
I read this book on a vacation and found it to be a page turner. I loved the atmosphere, the gypsy elements, the police procedure at the turn of the century and some of the characters. However, I spent some time pouring over the book after I finished and found many holes. First of all, the first major section of the book is about the fig (which is quite well done), but this turns out to be the biggest loose end around -- when we FINALLY find the tree, what is the relevance? how does it implicate the murderer? In fact, there are many scenes that are well described that turn out to have NOTHING to do with the plot. In short, there are many nice set pieces, but the storytelling does not hold together as many reviewers have pointed out. I enjoyed the book, but as a real detective story, it is lacking. too much pedantic research, not enough hard info to dig our teeth into. Still a good read, but not a masterwork.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By pinolegirl@yahoo.com on September 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
My Mother lent me this book to read, commenting as she did it that the book was "definitely unusual." I'm inclined to agree. While it's basically a mystery novel, most of the time it reads as historical fiction; thoroughly researched and exquisite in detail. Set in early 20th century Vienna, Shields has fictionalized the story of Dora, a case study by Freud, and turned it into a mystery novel that has two crime solvers--with very different approaches-- trying to solve the mystery. The book centers around Erszebet, a Hungarian woman married to the Viennese Inspector in charge of solving Dora's murder. She is consumed with the idea that a fig found in the dead girl's stomach holds the key to solving the crime. Erszebet's investigative techniques run a thin line between superstition and witchcraft, while her Inspector husband tirelessly tries to bring the Vienna police force into the 20th century. Early on, Erszebet enlists the help of a young English governess, Wally, who is definitely under her spell, as is Erszebet's nameless husband. I too found myself spellbound, and although it ran a little slow in the second half, I read it through to the last page--I confess I had to read the ending twice because I found it confusing. Overall it was a good read, and I'm not likely to forget Erszebet anytime soon.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Lawyeraau HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is an intriguing novel about the murder of Dora, a young eighteen year old woman found dead in a park. The contents of her stomach at the time of death contained a half digested fig. She was also a patient of Dr. Freud. You see, her murder happened in Vienna, Austria in 1910.
The case is assigned to a nameless inspector, who is trying to investigate this homicide according to certain principles set forth in a book of criminalistics written at the turn of the century. It is an intellectual and cerebral approach to a criminal investigation. It is also an interesting look at a turn of the century police procedural.
Meanwhile, Dora's murder has captured the imagination of the inspector's independent, Hungarian born wife, Erzebet, who, unbeknownst to her husband, has begun her own parallel investigation based upon intuition and her own cultural proclivities. She is joined in her endeavor by her friend, a governess who is at loose ends while her employer is away.
During the investigation, this elegantly written novel paints an atmospheric, three dimensional portrait of turn of the century Vienna, lush with details about everyday life. It is this part of the book that is the strongest and the most interesting, as it is highly evocative of a place and time gone by. The mystery itself, however, ends up not being much of a mystery, after all. In the final analysis, the promise of this highly ambitious novel remains unfulfilled, as the author simply bit off more than she could chew. The novel whets the appetite but, ultimately, fails to sate it.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I felt cheated after reading so much about figs and severed thumbs and tarot cards only to find out at the end it all meant nothing. Every time there was a climax, it was immediately forgotten only to be referred to in an absent-minded way 50 pages later. The ending was ludicrous. I think Ms. Shields had a germ of an idea and didn't know what to do with it after the first couple of chapters. I have lived in Vienna for the past eight years and every time I came to a German word, I winced because Ms. Shields used the singular instead of the plural and put umlauts in the wrong place. A key plot point in the book (the search for Rosza, the governess) could have been resolved at once instead of dragging on for over 200 pages. In Austria it is required by law to file a Meldezettel, a police form listing your place of residence. Even a baby needs its own Meldezettel within three days of birth. Every time someone moves, they must file a new Meldezettel within three days. The law has been in effect since well before 1910, when the book takes place. Doesn't Little Brown & Co. have editors or fact-checkers?
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Kelly Nash on March 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I couldn't get my nose out of this once I started. It's a crime novel, with vivid descriptions of turn-of-the century Vienna, a methodical inspector who reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, and his intuitive wife - working secretly, and with more occult methods, on the same strange case. Lots of twists, turns and strange, illuminating mental pictures keep your mind working in several directions, as you try to figure out the answers. The details are vivid and at the same time obscure, and worked well to give me the general creeps as I plowed through this unusual, engaging book. I liked it.
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