The public wasn’t ready for The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger when it was first published in 1966. Despite Pressburger’s fame as a filmmaker, sales of the book were poor. The reason becomes apparent once you start reading this psychological thriller. The protagonist is a Mengle-style Nazi war criminal hiding in a Pimlico boarding house and working as a piano tuner. However, Karl Braun (aka Dr Otto Reitmüller) is not your usual villain, he’s both cultured and charming and, as the story progresses, you find yourself oscillating between (almost) wanting him to escape and wanting him to be caught. Pressburger, himself a Jew whose mother and several family members perished in concentration camps, wanted to make a point. Even villains can be likeable which is exactly why they are so dangerous.
Karl tries as much as possible to keep his head below the parapet. This seems relatively easy until he meets Helen, an attractive but somewhat gullible estate agent. Karl’s closeness to her comes with danger. As he reflects: ‘Nothing is more inviting to disclose your secrets than to be told by others of their own’. And who is Helen, anyway?
Pressburger cleverly plays with our sympathies, letting Karl charm us with his daily going-ons and clumsy courting, only to slam down a horrific detail from his experimental-brain-surgery past. Living a double life is fraught, however, and Karl’s paranoia increases in parallel with news coverage of court cases involving Nazi war criminals, including that of one of his ex-colleagues. The net is tightening.
Alongside the psychological game Pressburger plays with his readers and the spiralling mental state of the protagonist, the author gives us a real sense of 1960s London. Some twists and turns towards the end make this an addictive and interesting read.
The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger is published by Faber & Faber, 288 pages.