Book Review: Frank Tallis’ series about Dr. Max Liebermann

A young Sherlock Holmes solves mysterious crime cases in early 20th-century Vienna with the help of Sigmund Freud

Author Frank Tallis at the Freud Museum | Photo: Alain Longeaud

Murders in Vienna

Sigmund Freud understood that criminal investigation and psychoanalysis have much in common. Both detectives and analysts look for clues to hidden secrets, plumbing the depths of the human psyche in search of motives. “In the case of the criminal it is a secret which he knows he hides from you,” Freud wrote in 1906, “but in the case of the hysteric it is a secret hidden from himself….”

Frank Tallis, a novelist and practicing psychologist, has woven together both strands of investigation to create an absorbing detective series set in Vienna in the first years of the 20th century, when both psychoanalysis and criminal forensic science were in their infancy. His protagonist is Dr. Max Liebermann, a young psychiatrist who combines the extraordinary deductive abilities of Sherlock Holmes with Freud’s revolutionary theories of the unconscious mind to solve baffling murders.

Max practices Freud’s innovative “talk therapy” focused on dreams, rejecting traditional treatments for mental illness championed by his professors, which often amounted to physical torture. He prides himself on his rational thinking, scientific outlook and modern tastes. But Max is not only a man of the mind; he is also a talented pianist who enjoys a weekly duet with his friend Oskar Rheinhardt, a police detective and a virtuoso baritone. Afterwards, over brandy and cigars, their conversation often turns to Rheinhardt’s latest murder case….

And what intriguing cases they are. In the series’ first book, A Death in Vienna, a beautiful clairvoyant is found dead inside a locked room in Leopoldstadt. Thanks to Max’s powers of perception, her suicide is reclassified as murder. In Vienna Blood, the murders begin at the Schönbrunn Zoo, where a huge boa constrictor has been sliced into pieces; this is but prelude to a bizarre mass-murder in a Spittelberg brothel. In Fatal Lies, the seemingly accidental death of a student at a military academy in Vienna’s forested outskirts uncovers rumors of brutal hazing and forbidden romantic entanglements, leading to suspicions that the boy was murdered. In Vienna Secrets—just out in paperback in the U.S.— decapitation is the murderer’s method of choice. The fifth installment, Deadly Communion, is set for release in the U.K. later this year.

The novels are addictive. Tallis writes with genuine affection for his characters, which readers cannot help but share, and his vivid prose makes Vienna c. 1900 shimmer with life. He expertly conjures up the social, cultural and intellectual ferment that roiled the imperial capital. For many Viennese rooted in the conservative traditions of empire, the new century ushered in deeply unsettling trends, including the influx of poor immigrants from the East and South, the rising prominence of Jewish businessmen like Max’s father, and a new breed of women who wanted to pursue careers. Modern urban life itself created anxiety, making psychiatry a growth industry.

Vienna was also a hotbed of artistic experimentation. In an enjoyable set piece, Max takes his sister and his fiancée, the vivacious Clara Weiss, to the Secession building to see Klimt’s Beethoven frieze; the young women are quietly scandalized, but also thrilled by their own daring in viewing it. Max himself is unconsciously affected by the mural’s frank sexuality. His engagement to Clara is very proper and thus quite chaste, but he also has carnal feelings, though perhaps, he comes to realize, not for Clara. Despite his perceptive insights into human nature, Max is as befuddled by the ways of love as the rest of us.

Max is drawn to a former patient, Miss Amelia Lydgate, an Englishwoman who has infiltrated the male bastion of the University to study medicine. She couldn’t be more different from the frivolous Clara. In each novel, Inspector Rheinhardt enlists Miss Lydgate’s formidable scientific intellect to aid his investigation. Her analysis of evidence using innovative forensic techniques always makes a crucial contribution to solving the case.

In unsettled times, people often look to mysticism or unorthodox ideologies for answers, and a century ago all sorts of radical currents were swirling through Vienna. Max and Rheinhardt encounter many of these darker elements. Spiritualism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, pan-German nationalism—modern readers know where all this will eventually lead. But Max has no inkling. Despite his remarkable powers of perception, he cannot see into the future. Max believes in science and modernity, confident that progress will only continue to advance. He scoffs at his father’s generation of self-made men, who in reading the signs of the times are quietly looking for ways to move business out of Austria in case conditions for Jews should deteriorate.

Even when Tallis’ intricate plots occasionally creak audibly, his mysteries offer up so many other pleasures, especially for anyone who knows Vienna, that their rare shortcomings are forgivable. Vienna is so steeped in history that it sometimes feels like one big museum. Tallis enables readers to see tourist landmarks like the Belvedere gardens, Café Central and the Riesenrad with fresh eyes. He also understands that music is part of the city’s very fiber. Beyond the charming scenes of Max and Rheinhardt’s musical evenings, he takes us to the opera, concerts and balls.

And what about Freud?  Max attends his famous Wednesday night case presentations in the waiting room at Berggasse 19, and taps Freud’s knowledge of primitive beliefs and symbols. Freud, it turns out, is a collector of Jewish jokes, and always has one ready to spring on Max. The younger doctor finds the jokes distasteful since they play on Jewish stereotypes; he considers his own Jewishness a cultural artifact, part of the old-fashioned world of his parents. (In 1905, Freud published Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious, positing that they give voice to forbidden thoughts that society represses.) But Freud’s massive intellect and sensitivity to human nature also come into play, and Max always comes away with a fresh insight from the master that helps him solve the case. Freud was himself a fan of Sherlock Holmes, so one hopes he would have appreciated Tallis’ affectionate homage.

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