Thursday, June 18, 2009

Frank Tallis, A Death in Vienna

I just read Frank Tallis's A Death in Vienna, and I really liked it.

Detectives: Max Liebermann (a psychotherapist/doctor) and Oskar Rheinhardt, a police detective

Type of series: The series (there are three books so far, I believe) is set in Vienna in the early 1900s around the time of the birth of psychoanalysis and before World War I. I'd probably characterize it as detailed and gritty historical fiction; the focus is on police procedure and on therapeutic procedure, although the characterization is also quite nicely done.

Sigmund Freud was living in Vienna at this time, and Liebermann talks to him once or twice in A Death in Vienna. Anti-Semitism was alive and well in Vienna as well, and the book hints at the emergence of the nostalgic Germanic groups that would give way, later, to Nazism.

The author: Frank Tallis is, the author description tells me, a "practicing clinical psychologist and an expert on obsessional states." In a "dossier" after the novel, he gives an excellent description of how the tasks of psychoanalysis and detective/police work dovetail. This reminded me of a work I read in graduate school wherein Jacques Lacan (a postFreudian psychoanalyst literary theorists were into at the time) did a similar thing in a reading of Poe's story "The Purloined Letter" (Poe's detective story that features C. Auguste Dupin). I like the arguments that Tallis/Lacan have made and think it is fascinating to consider the links between psychoanalysis (solving problems about the mind/character through clues) and crime fiction.

Oh yes, and a word on the book: A Death in Vienna provides great descriptions of the food, music, architecture, clothing, and manners in upper middle-class (I think) Vienna at the time. It also highlights the struggles that the emerging field of psychoanalysis was causing for the medical profession: this gets played out in an argument in the book on the best way to treat women with hysteria.

The mystery--well, I enjoyed it, but it was less compelling to me than the characters and the descriptions. There are many gorgeous passages about elaborate Austrian pastries; I long to try one of these some day.

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