Having read what I had to say about Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1976 collection of short stories set in an alternative Balkans, Dear Reader Tty suggested that I read Avram Davidson’s Doctor Eszterhazy stories. For this I thank him warmly: I have just finished the 1975 collection The Enquiries of Doctor Eszterhazy, and I loved every word of it.
As we meet him in the early 1900s, Engelbert Eszterhazy, seven times a doctor (counting two honorific titles), lives in the city of Bella, imperial capital of the Triune Monarchy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania. This realm covers parts of our world’s Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria: Bella coincides roughly with Belgrade or Timisoara. The Triune Kingdom is (like its real-world counterpart) a kaleidoscopic mix of peoples and creeds, including many that are no longer with us in the real world and others that have yet to appear. So, for example, one of the three united kingdoms is dominated by Goths, another one by Avars, and up by the Austrian border live the Hyperboreans, headstrong country folk who will at the least provocation refuse to pay the imperial head-tax.
The stories are not easily sorted into a genre. There is some supernatural content, much history, even more alternative history, some sleuthing, ample humour and a wealth of rich world-building. Somehow it reminds me of Terry Pratchett. Eszterhazy is a more aristocratic, academic and easy-going version of Holmes, and instead of Watson he has all manner of funny characters out of the highest and lowest echelons of imperial society. Davidson’s style is shamelessly literate and effortlessly archaic with much erudition, all done in such a skilful way that the reader does not feel excluded by the many references to unheard-of-things. Half of them are fictional; the other half obscure bits of real-world history that will leave readers with that sort of inclinations feeling mighty smug and smart when, once in a while, they get it.
It’s been a long time since I read a book and didn’t want it to end. These eight stories on their all-too-brief 206 pages made me want to grow a mustache, wax it, buy a vintage pre-WW1 travelling suit-and-hat and take the first sleeper-train to Bella, there to join Doctor Eszterhazy in his enquiries.