Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Death in Vienna

A Death in Vienna
Author: Frank Tallis
Random House, 2005
459 pages

I bought this book for the title alone, not knowing anything about it, or about the author. Turns out it's first in a series (three or four so far) set in early twentieth century Vienna, Austria. The main characters are a young physician named Liebermann who is continuing his studies in the new field of psychoanalysis and his friend, police inspector Rheinhardt. They collaborate to solve the murder of a young female "spiritual advisor" whose murder at first appears the result of too much experimenting with the supernatural. Using Rheinhardt's investigative techniques and Liebermann's knowledge of human behavior and psychology, they go down the list of suspects to solve the mystery of whodunnit.

Along the way, they meet some very interesting characters, such as Professor Sigmund Freud, whose work in the field of psychoanalysis has some thinking he's a genius and others thinking he's nuts. There's also Miss Lydgate, the Englishwoman who came to Vienna to work as a governess for some family friends, only to find herself a patient in the psychiatric ward. Turns out that Miss Lydgate's "hysteria" stems from the fact she was the victim of an attempted rape by the very man who hired her . . . and she's not his first victim. What you learn about how women are viewed in this society . . . well, it seems quite shocking but it's probably an accurate portrayal.

Vienna 1905 is definitely a man's world, and specifically a gentleman's world. Rheinhardt and Liebermann seem to be several years apart in age, and they have other differences as well. Rheinhardt is married and has two daughters. Liebermann is engaged to a young lady who despite being a family friend and "good match" doesn't seem quite right for him. The two men share a fraternal bond that includes a love of classical music, an enjoyment of hanging out in Vienna coffee houses, and smoking cigars. Kinda makes you wanna sing "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's, Man's World."

Behind the scenes there is an undercurrent of change. Foreshadowing of a growing anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant movement is evident in a couple of the characters. But the main focus of the story is still on solving the murder . . . and now a second, very different murder has occurred. Rheinhardt and Liebermann must move fast before someone else suffers the same fate.

The book got off to a slow start for me, but once I got into it, I was hooked. The writing is top-notch and the descriptions of Vienna were meaningful to me as I still clearly remember places like Cafe Schwarzenberg, the Votivkirche, and the Ringstrasse and lots of other locations mentioned. The author is a psychoanalyst in "real life" and I love how he weaves the history of his profession into the story. It made me want to read the other books, so now I've put them on my wish list on Amazon.com. Hint, hint!