Mortal Mischief – Frank Tallis

This was one of those books that looked intriguing when I saw it on the table in Waterstone’s. Not only that, but Amazon popped it up as a recommendation based on my known fondness for the Erast Fandorin books, amongst other things. So I decided to give it a try. And I was hooked from the start.

This is the first in a series – The Liebermann Papers. The second volume, Vienna Blood is out now in hardback. I may or may not wait for the paperback, but I will definitely be reading it…

The story opens in Vienna in 1902. In a beautifully atmospheric passage, we are introduced to our hero, Max Liebermann. Max is a young psychoanalyst, a follower of Sigmund Freud and an accomplished pianist. After a meeting with his father, Max bumps into his friend Oskar Rheinhardt, a police Inspector. We then follow Rheinhardt as he is called to what turns out to be a very strange case indeed. A woman has been shot dead in a room that has been locked from the inside, and there is no trace of the gun. A note found by the body suggests that something supernatural may have occurred. Rheinhardt is so perturbed by the case that he asks Max to assist, and so it begins…

In essence, it’s a classic locked-room murder mystery, which certainly kept me guessing right to the end. I did have a theory, but that was explicitly ruled out shortly before the end. So much for my deductive powers, eh? All the usual features are there – red herrings, the good policeman being told he’s going to be taken off the case, and a final confrontation with the killer that puts Max in deadly danger.

All of that would be enough to make an enjoyable book, but there’s a lot more. Frank Tallis, as a clinical psychologist, clearly knows what he’s writing about as he describes Max at work. Defying his superiors, who think that “hysteria” can be cured by increasingly dangerous electric shock treatment, Max persists with the “talking cure” pioneered by Freud. And this proves to be critical, as it’s one of his patients who provides the key to the riddle after being cured by Max. Amelia Lydgate is a young Englishwoman who hopes to train as a doctor – which is quite unusual for the time. She’s very intelligent, and it’s obvious that she and Max are drawn to each other, which could be awkward for Max, as he’s just become engaged to Clara, a charming enough young woman, but with whom Max seems to have little or nothing in common…

All that, and what seems to be a very well researched background. Early 20th Century Vienna is described in evocative detail – even down to the coffee and cakes that are such a major part of the social life of the city. And we see Gustav Mahler conducting Beethoven. Excellent.

This would be great material for a movie.