The Austin Chronicle

Book Review

Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, March 5, 2010, Books

Vienna Secrets: A Max Liebermann Mystery

by Frank Tallis
Mortalis/Random House Trade Paperbacks, 400 pp., $15

If you like your murder mysteries with a healthy dose of Freudian psychoanalysis, here's a sweet read for you. Set in 1903 Vienna, this is the fourth volume of the Liebermann Papers, Tallis' acclaimed mystery series that features the crime-fighting team of police Inspector Oskar Reinhardt and psychoanalyst Dr. Max Liebermann. Like its trio of predecessors, this yarn is rich in historical detail and presence of place.

When two bodies are found brutally decapitated on church property and the victims are discovered to be members of a covert anti-Semitic group, Liebermann turns his attention to the insular Hasidic community and its fiery leader, Rebbe Barash. The plot thickens when a third headless body turns out to be that of a Jewish procurer with a history of abusing young women. An array of compelling subtexts and subplots are deftly interwoven into the fabric of the story with stylish flair. The mounting anti-Semitism of the time fuels a deathbed controversy that entangles Liebermann at the hospital where he works. The blowback of this simmering vitriol brings into focus the legend of the golem, a manmade superhuman protector of Jews in medieval Prague, and its relation to Jewish mysticism and the kabbalah. Liebermann is a student of Sigmund Freud, and his theories of dream analysis are an intriguing part of the deliberations. Freud even makes a cameo appearance, as does the revered author/playwright Arthur Schnitzler. Their presence and the discussion of their work enhances the depiction of Vienna as a cauldron of intellectual vibrancy at a time when the mighty Austro-Hungarian empire was nearing the end of its dominance. The city's crowded, smoky coffeehouses and restaurants are used as effective set-pieces with Inspector Reinhardt's penchant for pastries and sweets evoking some delectable descriptions. Tallis' knowledge of the period's contemporary music, his grasp of arcane piano techniques, and a judicious use of physics makes for a tale so chock-full of tantalizing elements that the actual solving of the crimes almost takes a backseat to the heady milieu swirling around it.

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