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Police Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt is called to investigate the death of a 15-year-old cadet in an elite military boarding school. He seems to have died a natural death, the only visual wounds are razor cuts which weren't fatal, though. Rheinhardt refuses to accept that a healthy boy that age dies just like that, he's got a 'feeling' that there's more to the case than meets the eye. He asks his friend, Dr. Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist, to accompany him and help him look into the matter.
They discover a gang of unscrupulous and brutal cadets who bully their mates, especially the ones from poor familes who've got a scholarship, for the sheer joy of experiencing power, but the gang's head, a mean sadist, even extorts a teacher for his own personal advantage. It's difficult for Rheinhardt to get into the closed society of the boarding school, the pupils say nothing, the teachers are frightened, the director is hostile. By and by, however, he succeeds in unravelling some dark secrets, yet he can't prevent three more deaths to happen.
What makes this novel special is that it's set in the Vienna of 1903. The combination of a historical background and a murder mystery isn't an original invention by the author Frank Tallis. What has he made of the genre? The turn-of-the century Vienna is evoked in great detail and described lovingly. The protagonists belong mostly to the well-to-do, educated class, grace, style and good manners prevail in personal relationships. Men kiss women's hands, ask for permission and apologise when nowadays nobody would even think of doing so in a similar situation. Everybody dresses well, speaks well and engages in culturally worthy pastimes. The language is elaborate, slang expressions don't occur, either in descriptions or in dialogues. No, "You do this, you die!" but, "Regretfully, I really must draw our meeting to a close."
Rheinhardt and Liebermann know each other because they perform music together, Rheinhardt sings and Liebermann accompanies him on the piano. The music which is en vogue at the moment is discussed, some lieder (songs) are quoted in the original German and in the English translation. Maybe the greatest emphasis is put on the food the Viennese indulge in. Good and solid plain fare is described in as much detail as the exquisite pastries of the famous Viennese Café Demel, 'the imperial and royal confectioners'. Candied peel, marzipan animals, fondants, jellies, whole discs of torte, jars of brandy snaps, Turkish delight, vanillekipferln, meringues, pots of raspberry cream and apricot sauce, pear compote, Corinthian cinnamon buns - to name but a few. One reviewer remarks, "It is difficult that the reader tears himself away from this culinary pornography."
Normally, I'm not too keen on elaborate descriptions but I've enjoyed them here because it gives me an extra kick to see aspects of the German/Austrian culture surrounding me every day used to spice up a story. In the annotations Tallis thanks someone for checking his German, this person nearly got it all right, an insurmountable stumbling block seem to be the umlauts which are sometimes used correctly and sometimes aren't.
For a novel revelling in descriptions it's surprising that the outward appearance of the two main protagonists is never described. We only learn that Rheinhardt isn't very tall and fat whereas the only adjective used for Liebermann is 'young'.
When an author uses a sleuthing pair of men one of whom is a physician, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson automatically come to mind. Yet Rheinhardt and Liebermann are not a replica. For me Liebermann, the psychiatrist, is the main protagonist. Tallis, who's a clinical psychologist himself, clearly wants to make use of his knowledge. At the beginning of the 20th century psychiatry was still a young science and psychiatrists weren't part of the police force as they're nowadays, this means that Liebermann couldn't get into contact with cases without the help of a policeman, hence his friendship with Rheinhardt who allows him to accompany him and try out his outlandish tests.
Liebermann is also the more interesting man regarding his personal situation. While Rheinhardt is a gemütlich family man with a loving wife and two endearing daughters, Liebermann is still on the look-out for the right woman. When the story starts, he's in love with one of his former patients, a pretty, intelligent, well educated English woman but things don't develop the way he desires. So he starts an affair with a mysterious, passionate Hungarian concert violinist. According to the racist stereotype in Western literature the goodie is fair and the baddie is dark. When I studied Russian literature at uni our professor pointed out this phenomenon and I must say that I've found it to be true (exceptions prove the rule). Liebermann is also drawn into a case of espionage which reaches the highest echelon of society, the Kaiser himself is affected.
I found Fatal Lies by chance and didn't know that it was the third instalment of the Rheinhardt/Liebermann series by Frank Tallis. Several Amazon customers claim that it is the best so far. The fact that I didn't have the feeling that something was missing means that Fatal Lies can be read as a standalone novel.