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November 03, 2006

In the last analysis: Mortal Mischief - Frank Tallis

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Mortal Mischief
by Frank Tallis
London: Arrow Books, 2005
Paperback, £6.99

This book, Volume One of the Liebermann Papers, has everything: a locked room mystery, an impossible murder, Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century when art, music, science, medicine and, above all, study of psychology were at a boiling point, a couple of likeable and very musical detectives, interesting minor characters, an encounter at the top of the famous Wheel, and the wonders of Vienna café life including those magnificent cakes.

Dr Max Liebermann is a young disciple of Freud's, whose friend and musical partner is Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, through whom he becomes involved in a murder enquiry, providing his own, rudimentary form of criminal profiling. Around this main theme we have discussions of medical methods, particularly of treatment of hysteria; problems connected with predatory males and females who become predatory as all other choices remain closed; new ideas in art; and, frighteningly, the menacing growl of anti-Semitism, which will, in the fullness of time, destroy the exciting and vibrant culture described in the novel.

Some of the psychoanalytical babble makes one smile, there having been a great many idiocies spoken in the name of Freudian analysis and even more parodies created. But Tallis is good at showing the exciting novelty of it all and the barbaric treatment methods psychoanalysis was replacing.

What of the crime at the centre of the book? It makes sense in some ways though the method is a little unlikely and Tallis does not precisely play fair with the reader. Several obvious clues are not mentioned until the very end, even as Liebermann confronts the murderer. Not a classical detective story then but an exciting yarn with a wonderfully well created atmosphere and a novel that makes the reader want to know more about the various characters and their development.

Tallis is promising at least two more volumes of the Liebermann Papers. The second one is out in hardback already, under the enticing title of Vienna Blood, though Liebermann is more of a supporter of Mahler than Johann Strauss II. But Vienna blood flows through this novel, through the characters, the settings (let us hope the first scene will encourage many people to try Topfenstrudel next time they are in Vienna) and even the slightly bizarre plot. I am looking forward with great pleasure and anticipation to the forthcoming volumes.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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