A Place Where Evil Lies in Wait
Monday, January 14, 2008
Volume Two of the Liebermann Papers
By Frank Tallis
Random House. 485 pp. Paperback, $15
London clinical psychologist Frank Tallis's "Vienna Blood" is one of the finest literary thrillers I've ever read. It's a dazzling tour de force, set in Vienna in 1902, that combines the search for a serial killer with a vibrant portrait of fin-de-siecle Viennese social and cultural life and a disturbing look at the rise of the twisted German nationalism that would soon emerge as Nazism. The novel is a bit long, but that's because Tallis's exceptional descriptive powers lead to elegant word-portraits of everything from architecture to an autopsy to a duel to the mouth-watering Viennese pastries that the characters frequently devour. Impatient readers need not apply, but for everyone else this is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire on a winter evening.
We start with two friends, young psychologist Dr. Max Liebermann and Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt. Their friendship encompasses both music -- some evenings they meet, and the detective sings while the psychologist plays the piano -- and crime, as Liebermann advises the detective on murder cases. There are echoes of Holmes and Watson here, with the psychologist as the brilliant analyst and the detective as the decent, stolid friend. At the start of the novel, a madam and three prostitutes are butchered, and the two men join forces once more, as they did in Tallis's previous, highly praised "A Death in Vienna." More murders and mutilations follow.
In his private life, Liebermann is engaged to the sweet and well-to-do Clara, but he's coming to realize that she lacks the intellectual qualities he wants in a wife. His plight worsens as he contemplates an English medical student, Amelia Lydgate, who is as smart as she is gorgeous. Amelia, for her part, is bedeviled by a professor who believes women should not be permitted to study medicine at the University of Vienna. This bigot proves to be a member of Primal Fire, a secret society that preaches German nationalism and dreams of a "Teutonic Messiah," who will rid Germany of Jews, blacks, Freemasons and other supposed undesirables. These Nazis-to-be idolize a journalist called Guido von List, who writes novels about the invincible leader who will restore the glorious German past. List is, in fact, a historical figure whose writings were well known to Adolf Hitler.
We are in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud (who makes a cameo appearance), the artist Gustav Klimt and the composer Gustav Mahler -- all scorned by the German nationalists as Jews and degenerates. One of the Germans describes attending one of Freud's lectures and being filled with horror at the idea of "telling one's innermost secrets to a smug, self-satisfied Jew who was preoccupied with filth." These Germans' hero of heroes is the composer Richard Wagner, and they despise Mozart for having celebrated Freemasonry in "The Magic Flute," an opera that provides a blueprint for the series of killings. Music is central to the novel and becomes a form of political expression. (And "Vienna Blood" is not only an apt title for a serial-killer novel but also the name of a Strauss waltz.)
Readers of this, as of many other novels, agonize because we know horrors lie ahead that the various cultured and optimistic characters cannot imagine. When a crude, bloody swastika is found at the scene of one murder, Liebermann does some research and concludes only that the "broken cross" is "an Indo-European symbol representing goodness and health."
This novel offers many surprises. Two lovingly described duels may teach you a great deal about that ancient practice. An anti-Semitic artist goes to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts and is enthralled by Hieronymus Bosch's "The Last Judgment." As he studies it in detail, we realize that he is seeing nothing less than a preview of the Holocaust: "A bare, unadorned building housed the carcasses of destroyed humanity, their barely visible forms hanging on hooks like those of animals in an abattoir." And yet such horrors may be soon followed by a moment such as this: "Liebermann scooped the cream off his torte, tilted his fork, and let the silver pearls catch the light. They were perfect spheres of different sizes and flashed like stars."
Tallis has given his novel a wonderful range. It deals with profoundly serious historical and political issues, yet it remains fast-paced and often fun. The book begins with Liebermann attending his fencing class and, logically enough, ends with a sword fight worthy of an Errol Flynn movie. Liebermann's analytical genius often recalls that of Sherlock Holmes, but this is the kind of novel Arthur Conan Doyle might have written if he'd been a far better novelist. The publisher's corporate wisdom has resulted in "Vienna Blood" being issued as a trade paperback, so it may be harder to find than other, lesser novels, but it's worth the effort. "Vienna Blood" is the first great thriller of 2008.