By Barbara Wilson. Seattle: Seal Press, 1993. 277 pages (hardcover).
Tomislav Longinovic’s translation of “Granny Todorina,” a Serbian “women’s song,” preserves the bawdy and bodily nature of the original, and it was this earthiness I was reminded of while reading sections of Barbara Wilson’s 1993 novel Trouble in Transylvania.
First-person narrator, Cassandra Reilly—reprising her role from Wilson’s 1990 Gaudi Afternoon (also a 2001 film starring Judy Davis and Juliette Lewis)—travels to Budapest, preparing tickets and documents for the Trans-Mongolian Railway to China. On the train from Vienna she ecounters elderly Gladys and granddaughter Bree on their way to a health spa in Transylvania, as well as Michiganers Archie, Cathy, and Emma. In Budapest Cassandra meets up with longtime traveling companion and erstwhile lover “Jack,” and Jack’s new business partner, a one-time Hungarian gymnast-turned-feminist named Eva. Upon receiving news from Bree of a suspicious death at the spa, Cassandra, Jack, and Eva are off by car to the land of Vlad Tepes.
Wilson’s protagonist is an amateur sleuth—and no Private Dick—drawn to investigate curious circumstances; and similarly the novel’s mystery is more a matter of (un)happy coincidence rather than evidence of a criminal mastermind at work. One might be reminded of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody visiting Egypt in Crocodile on the Sandbank or even Evelyn ’Evie’ Carnahan from The Mummy (1999), but in Cassandra we meet a more reflective, less Victorian, and entirely more political and sensual heroine.
Indeed, while the novel is nominally a “Cassandra Reilly Mystery,” it is equal part travelogue, history lesson, and social commentary. Though each character is opinionated—whether it be with regard to the goals and needs of feminism, her own sexuality, the communist legacy, nationalism, or the characteristic traits of certain ethnic groups—the fact that everything is filtered through the narrator’s subjectivity and that most of the characters are drawn as people with their own goals, desires, and feelings lends the novel a feeling of discourse and discussion rather than one of dogma and didacticism. The locations feel authentic, as do the characters (though several of the Americans comes across as “types” at the beginning of the book, developing only later into likable characters), and Wilson, a co-founder of Seal Press, treats gender, ethnicity, and nationalism with far more sophistication than one would expect from a piece of “genre fiction.”
Trouble in Transylvania is a fast and light read. There are touches of sadness and it is not void of ethical dilemmas; still, it is full of moments of irony, wit, and even celebration, such as when a room of mud-covered, mostly-nude women fling bucket upon bucket of mud at two police officers.
Selected quotes from Trouble in Transylvania