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May 11, 2007

Frank Tallis's latest book does not work as crime fiction, but it does give you a fine glimpse of 1905 Vienna: Vienna Blood - Frank Tallis

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Vienna Blood
by Frank Tallis
London: Arrow Books, 2007
Paperback, Ł7.99

The second volume of the Lieberman Papers has a slightly more sensible plot than volume one (Mortal Mischief - previously reviewed by me). Not credible, you understand, not even logical, but it is somewhat more sensible. That is more than can be said for a completely incomprehensible sub-plot that involves the degenerate Hungarian count Záborszky who had appeared in Mortal Mischief and a completely amoral, sadistic and pathological Don Juan of an uhlan (that is, a member of an elite cavalry corps in Austria-Hungary).

The underlying theme of both the main plot and the subplot is the growing hatred among German nationalist groups for Jews and other incomers, as they see it, from various parts of the Empire. There is nothing wrong with the theme but its working out in the plot makes one feel that Frank Tallis is really more interested in writing a novel about Vienna in the early twentieth century than working out a credible murder mystery.

The main plot, a series of bloody and incomprehensible murders, turn out to be involved in an obscure and badly worked out fashion with The Magic Flute, its characters and themes. In the end even Max Liebermann has to acknowledge to his friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, that he does not actually know why the murderer's mania was set off precisely when it happened. Nor is there any real explanation as to the pattern the mania takes and there is downright cheating with one of the victims. In other words, this book would not pass the portals of the Detection Club.

That matters less than one would expect it. It is Frank Tallis's Vienna of 1905 that occupies the attention of both author and reader. We see the Vienna of music, swirling ideas, new concepts like psychoanalysis, new philosophy, wonderful food and some very old problems. We see different circles - Freud's weekly seminar, a rather gruesome German nationalist society, the Freemasons, army officers and others - all revolving in a world that is changing all the time and not always in a comprehensible way.

German nationalism is clearly on the rise with all the attendant feelings of victimhood and resentment that erupt into violence, whether it is the sadism of an uhlan with women or the viciousness of the murderer. The Freemasons, interestingly, come across as rather good people, believers in brotherhood and equality, much hated by the nationalists (as they were to be by the Nazis). Women are improving their position with some of them studying medicine at the University of Vienna, this causing a good deal of resentment as well.

Tallis is good with his characters. Even the obviously unpleasant ones (including the murderer and those who egg him on) merit understanding and compassion in his eyes. As for the central figures, Max Liebermann, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, his subordinate Haussmann, Max's friend Sephan Kanner and, above all, the two women, Clara Weiss and the terrifying English scientist Miss Lydgate, they are rounded, mostly attractive and sometimes infuriating people.

It is, therefore, unfortunate that the plot is really quite so shabby (though, as I said, slightly more credible than the plot of the first volume of the Liebermann Papers). It is not even that Tallis is particularly taken with the notion that writing detective stories is somehow inferior and one must write "real" novels, however sloppy they might be. He seems genuinely to have become entranced by his subject, that is Vienna of the early twentieth century and the people in it, to the point of being unable to work out a more or less credible murder plot. The two do not have to be mutually incompatible. Dostoyevsky managed it several times.

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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