|Frank Tallis builds his novel around two investigators and a group of proto-Nazis. (NICOLA FOX)|
By Frank Tallis
Random House, 485 pp., $15
In Frank Tallis's new mystery "Vienna Blood," Sigmund Freud and his disciples interpret dreams, and Gustave Mahler conducts the opera. The story unfolds amidst the ornate public buildings, elegant concert halls, bustling cafes, and plush dining rooms of fin de siecle Vienna. The many varieties of pastry are lovingly detailed. But Tallis, a clinical psychologist in London, does more than showcase Vienna's glories; the novel, the second in a series, views the city from the inside as much as from the outside, suggesting the unease rumbling beneath the charm and gaiety.
Baffled by a series of grisly murders, detective inspector Oskar Rheinhardt calls on his friend, Dr. Max Liebermann, a fledgling psychiatrist, for advice and assistance. Rheinhardt, middle-aged and happily married, is an old-fashioned investigator - dogged, practical, impatient for facts. Liebermann, the Freudian, is a master of subtleties, drawing inferences from gesture, tone, and manner, finding patterns in scattered bits of data. His own demeanor is impeccably calm and professional; inwardly he ruminates over his engagement to Clara Weiss, a good-natured, pretty young woman, and his fascination with Amelia Lydgate, a troubled, aloof medical student.
Among the novel's pleasures is the chemistry between Rheinhardt and Liebermann, united by their sleuthing, their love of playing music together, and their fondness for long talks over brandy and cigars. Their differences in temperament provide some of the novel's welcome touches of humor.
Their investigations lead the two into the darker corners of Viennese society, the haunts of drifters, prostitutes, and sinister cults, such as a group called the Eddic Literary Association, devotees of Norse legends. The character of the group soon becomes clear enough: Members greet one another with cries of "Heil und Sieg!"; a musician in their ranks writes bombastic compositions with titles like "Blood and Thunder"; the group applauds writers and speakers (some based on historical figures) who proclaim the superiority and rebirth of the Germanic people.
Tallis shows Vienna as a city breaking apart, struggling with change. At their gatherings, the proto-Nazis are full of bluster and bravado. Alone, they seethe at a world brimming with new intellectual and artistic ideas and leaving them behind; they prop themselves up by inventing heroes and scapegoats. At the same time, we see the incipient fears of those who wonder whether they still "belong"; assimilated Jews read the signals and begin taking to heart the views of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl.
The murder mystery is not suspenseful so much as it is bound up with the history and culture of the city. In Tallis's hands, the birthplace of psychoanalysis is itself an analyst's delight. Portraying the city, he seems very much the doctor trying to understand the patient. In an afterward he calls Vienna a "city of secrets," and he casts his eye on both its outward appearances and its inner turmoil. The characters, settings, and events serve as a means of exploring the strange mix in the early 1900s of dying traditions, urbanity and sophistication, and growing bigotry and intolerance. The novel deftly combines a history lesson with lively storytelling.
Judith Maas is a freelance writer and editor.