Friday, September 28, 2012

Review of A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis (Arrow, 2006)

1902 in Vienna and a beautiful and alluring spiritualist, Charlotte Löwenstein, is found dead in her home.  The room has been locked from the inside and, although shot, there’s no bullet.  Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt is assigned to the case, but he’s quickly floundering given the apparent supernatural nature of the murder.  He turns for help to his friend Dr. Max Liebermann, a follower of Sigmund Freud, who has his own troubles fighting against his superiors who prefer electrotherapy over psychoanalysis.  Between them they start to investigate the spiritualist’s death, focusing on the group that attend her weekly séances, including a stage magician, a locksmith, a wealthy banker and his wife, a seamstress, a Hungarian count fallen on hard times, and a politically ambitious seller of surgical instruments who dates a rich but unattractive heiress.  Slowly they start to piece together what happened that night, with Oskar Rheinhardt playing Watson to Liebermann’s Holmes.  They are aided by the talented scientist, Amelia Lydgate, an English woman in Vienna hoping to study medicine that Liebermann has been treating for hysteria bought on by a traumatic event.  Then a second murder occurs.

There’s lots to like about A Death in Vienna (also published as Mortal Mischief).  The plot is cleverly conceived and well executed, with a couple of substantial subplots that add, rather than detract, from the story.  The locked room element of the story is well realised and Tallis does a good job of keeping various suspects in the frame.  The characterisation is nicely executed with respect to all the principle and secondary characters, with Rheinhardt and Liebermann being nice, complementary foils.  There is also a strong sense of place and attention to historical detail.  The story is very much set in Vienna, with its streets, shops and galleries, and is rooted in its culture, politics and science at the turn the twentieth century.  Despite all these qualities, the storytelling was a little flat and wooden at the start, but it soon livened up to become an engaging and engrossing read.  I’ll be checking out the next book in the series.

1 comment:

SteveHL said...

Rob, I haven't read this one but I've read two later books in the series, both of which were nominated for Edgars for Best Paperback Original. I thought that the mysterious murder method used in Vienna Secrets was so far-fetched and, at the same time, so badly telegraphed that it really ruined the mystery aspects of the book for me. However, as you said, Tallis does a fine job in setting and character. I had fewer reservations about the following book in the series, Vienna Twilight.

An interesting note about this series is that Tallis, like his fellow mystery author Jonathan Kellerman who writes the Alex Delaware series, is a psychologist, so he has no problem writing knowledgeably about the work of Freud and his contemporaries.