Intrigue in Old Vienna

By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 2, 2009


By Frank Tallis

Random House. 439 pp. Paperback, $15

"Fatal Lies" is the third of Frank Tallis's immensely satisfying literary thrillers set in Vienna at the start of the 20th century. And what, precisely, do we mean by "literary thriller"? In the case of "Fatal Lies" and its two predecessors -- "A Death in Vienna" and "Vienna Blood" -- we mean at least three things: First, there is a crime at the heart of the story. Second, the author delights us with rich, often gorgeous prose. Finally, the novel is of intellectual interest as it touches on such matters as psychoanalysis (Freud turns up in several scenes), classical music, art and politics, as well as such secondary topics as Viennese pastries and the joys and pitfalls of dedicated absinthe use.

Tallis's heroes -- his Holmes and Watson -- are the good friends Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist, and police inspector Oskar Rheinhardt. Both are music lovers, and in this novel we first see them tuxedo-clad at a grand ball. The baroque ballroom is filled with flowers, and an orchestra is playing a Strauss waltz. The somewhat older inspector is dancing with his wife, and Liebermann with Amelia Lydgate, a medical student from England with whom he is infatuated. Abruptly, a policeman enters and summons Rheinhardt to a military academy outside Vienna where a teenage student has been found dead. Dark, sadistic doings at this academy, which is clearly a breeding-ground for future Nazis, will occupy our two heroes for the rest of the novel. Yet the military school mystery is only the beginning of the book's delights. Tallis's singular achievement is to bring vividly to life many of the glories and dangers of a great city at a crucial moment in its history.

Both music and love loom large. Liebermann and Rheinhardt meet often in the evenings to blend Liebermann's piano skills with the inspector's singing. Moreover, Liebermann becomes enchanted with an exotic, dark-haired Hungarian violinist, and they, too, are soon performing duets, musical and otherwise. We are treated to commentary such as this, on Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata: "Beethoven, the most human of composers, never merely observed nature -- he engaged with it. Thus, the gamboling of lambs and the blossoming trees -- which the music so readily suggested -- served to introduce a more profound philosophical program. This was not a sterile description of a season -- tuneful meteorology -- but an inquiry into that most awe-inspiring of all vernal phenomena: romantic love."

In one wildly romantic scene, Liebermann takes the Hungarian woman to an amusement park that features an attraction called Venedig in Wien -- Venice in Vienna -- where they board a gondola, open a bottle of champagne and glide through a network of canals that reproduces those in Venice. This woman, however, arouses our suspicions (if not Liebermann's) by rather quickly taking him to bed and introducing him to absinthe, which he finds provides both fascinating insights ("His perceptual universe was strangely altered") and near-fatal hangovers. The possibility arises that the Hungarian violinist is a woman of less-than-perfect virtue; indeed, Liebermann begins to fear that his exotic lover might be a witch.

Meanwhile, he pines for the virtuous Miss Lydgate, of whose smile he reflects: "Its radiance imbued her face with beatific qualities. Indeed, there was something about her appearance that reminded Liebermann of religious iconography: she might easily have replaced the angel in a Renaissance Annunciation." The problem comes when he glimpses Miss Lydgate with another man, which drives our supremely rational hero into a cataclysm of rage and jealousy. He discusses his feelings with his friend and mentor, Freud, who admits to a similar outburst of jealousy when he was courting the woman he married. Liebermann rather unkindly suggests that Freud's cocaine use might have led to paranoia and then to irrational jealousy, although he does not reflect that absinthe might have done the same to him.

Fortunately, in Vienna one can always seek consolation in pastries. The author sends Liebermann to the Café Demel -- "the imperial and royal confectioners" -- where his senses are overwhelmed by "cakes and sweetmeats: candied peel, marzipan animals, fondants and jellies, whole discs of torte -- covered with thick dark chocolate -- jars of brandy snaps, Turkish delight, vanillekipferl, meringues, pots of raspberry cream and apricot sauce, pear compote, artificial coins wrapped in gold and silver paper . . . dumplings bursting with glistening conserves, pastry pillows and Carinthian cinnamon buns." After much soul-searching, Liebermann orders "the Salzburger Mozart torte: a sponge cake with layers of marzipan, brushed with chocolate cream and apricot jam, and decorated with large orange-flavored pralines."

It is with difficulty that the reader tears himself away from this culinary pornography to return to evildoings at the military academy, but Tallis (a clinical psychologist who lives in London) has an exceptional ability to move seamlessly among varied plot elements, characters and emotions. "Fatal Lies" is being published as a trade paperback, which means it is less costly but somewhat more difficult to find than most new novels. No matter. If you're looking for the best in popular fiction, it's well worth seeking out.

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