Frank Tallis and Freud

Theme:  International Thrillers

England~Frank Tallis

A Death in Vienna by Brit writer Frank Tallis is a thriller that is palatable, meant for those who like their thrillers civilized and steeped in intellect.  It’s a polite whodunit with an added mystery of how’dtheydunit and filled with all the hat-tipping and decorum that has fallen tragically by the wayside in today’s society.  A historical thriller set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, this is a novel that takes the marks of that era and place–Freud and Mozart–and uses them as a backdrop for a case that centers around a supernatural murder.  Charlotte Lowenstein, a medium that holds séances on Thursday even with a  select and motley group of devout followers, is found  dead by a gunshot wound in her room.  The mysterious elements are that there is no exit wound and that the room was locked from the inside preventing any viable means of escape for the murderer. 

Oskar Rheinhardt, a local police detective, is called upon to investigate the case.  What makes this particular thriller interesting is that it doesn’t lend itself to easily to the mystery/thriller formula because Tallis, a psychologist himself, brings in a psychologist to help solve the puzzling factors of the murder of Fraulein Lowenstein.  This may not seem all that unusual, but the historical confluence of the supernatural and psychology in their infancy makes this an interesting read.  Lieberman, who is a contemporary of Freud, discusses with facility the possibility of what the motivations of each suspect would or wouldn’t be.  And because the supernatural deals in the realm of the abstract, much like psychology, there is a intellectual pull at the reader to consider the possible options for murder that may not seem plausible.  Rheinhardt poses as the pragmatic voice:

    “I believe,” said Rheinhardt, selecting his words with utmost care, “we should only consider a supernatural explanation when all other explanations have been eliminated.”

Lieberman is not, per se, a believer in the supernatural but he is a scientist at heart with the mind as his area of study so he doesn’t rule out the supernatural because it is a reality that the mind creates.  Lieberman is an obviously talented man who can suss out psychological motivations for just about any quirk of human behavior.  For instance, on Thursday nights, Lieberman and Rheinhardt share a musical evening in which Lieberman plays the piano and Rheinhardt sings.  One particular evening Lieberman notices that his friend is preoccupied and is able to figure out that the reason is because of the murdered Fraulein Lowenstein  without having knowledge of the murder:

    “So, how did I give myself away this time?”

    “Earlier this evening,” began Lieberman, “we were discussing Schubert and you unintentionally confused the ‘Death and the Maiden’ string quartet with ‘The Trout’ quintet!  Now, I know for a fact that you are very familiar with the Schubert repertoire.  So I considered that the mistake, the slip of the tongue, was significant.  Being, as you are a detective inspector, the kind of death that naturally preoccupies you most is a murder.  The term ‘maiden’ implies youth and beauty…Putting all this together, I inferred the influence of the unconscious memory.  An unconscious memory of a murdered young woman.”

    Rheinhardt shook his head in disbelief.  “All right.  But what about the blood–the blood on the blue dress?  How did you work that out?”

    “When we were performing the Hugo Wolf song– ‘Auf dem See’–you stumbled over the word ‘blood’ on both renditions.  I took this to be confirmation of my earlier speculation.  When I asked you just now what you intended to buy your wife on your wedding anniversary, you said a dress.  But you couldn’t, at first, remember the color of the material that her dressmaker had recommended, however, some time later, you were able to say that is was blue.  I took this to mean that the idea of the blue dress was being repressed.”

This would definitely disturb me if I had a friend who knew what was happening in my life without my consciously divulging anything.  Obviously, Tallis uses his skills as a psychologist to a heighten the tension of the novel and with a pleasing effect.  Playing with the idea of association and verbal miscues is a original take on the use of psychology in thrillers.  Tallis’ particular talent and his penchant for historical accuracy makes for a solid combination of creating a high-brow thriller that doesn’t lag or pile up murders when the plot begins to slacken.  

The other complementary aspect of A Death in Vienna is his writing style.  Erudite and fluid, it helps set the tone of the period and of the more intellectual tenor that Tallis invokes.  This thriller also comes with a plethora of varied characters from opium addicts to sexual victims to moneyed society folk.  At times, it reminded me of Murder on the Orient Express with its healthy cast of bizarre characters and the unexpected turns in plot. 

And if the novel weren’t compelling enough, there is a dossier after the novel where Tallis writes an essay about the presence of Freud and his presence in psychological thrillers and detective fiction.  I found this as fascinating as the novel itself and think that there is definitely a non-fiction book ready made for this topic.  This is the kind of thriller that reads like literary fiction but will be accessible for books groups and almost all fans of well-written thrillers. 

A Death in Vienna

By Frank Tallis
Random House
Paperback, 471 pp.
ISBN: 9780812977639

The dynamic turn-of-the-century duo, Oskar Rheinhardt and Max Lieberman, have become a powerful series of thrillers for Frank Tallis.  Check out his other worthy titles in the series:

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