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Mortal Mischief - Frank Tallis
Member Name: Mauri
Mortal Mischief - Frank Tallis
Date: 16/04/07, updated on 25/06/09 (135 review reads)
Advantages: Good story, good characters
Disadvantages: A little over elaborate in places
When a young and beautiful medium is murdered in 1902 Vienna Detective Inspector, Oskar Rheinhardt is called in to investigate. He finds the case baffling, not only was the body found in a room locked from the inside with no other means of entry, there also doesn't seem to be any means by which the murder could've taken place. When an internally locked box is also found containing a small statuette of an ancient Egyptian god speculation starts that the death might have been due to supernatural forces. Was the medium Miss Lowenstein dabbling in the dark arts summoning demons, which then led to her death? Did the members of her séance group have anything to do with her death and what dark secret are they trying to keep hidden from the inspector?
Rheinhardt soon turns to his friend and scientist Max Liebermann for help. Liebermann is a young doctor practising the new science of psychotherapy and is a follower and acquaintance of another contemporary Viennese scientist Sigmund Freud. Lieberman can bring his attention to detail; his logical thought process and his ability to interpret people through their actions and subconscious signals to bear on the case. However despite Liebermann's help the case becomes even more troublesome when another even more brutal murder is committed fuelling popular belief that a demon is at work in the city. Under pressure from the authorities Rheinhardt and Liebermann must crack the case before more deaths ensue.
In many ways this is a routine if enjoyable 'locked room' murder mystery but what makes this stand out from the average is Frank Tallis' evocative recreation of 1900s Vienna and the use of the new science of psychoanalysis practiced by the key character Max Liebermann.
Frank Tallis or should I say Dr Frank Tallis knows about the subject matter since he is a practicing clinical psychologist having held lecturing posts in clinical psychology and neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry and King's College, London. His understanding of mental health is used to full advantage in the creation of the Liebermann character and in his illustrations of the medical practises of the time.
Vienna in 1902 was an interesting place to be, as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire it was one of the most modern and forward thinking places in Europe embracing science and culture and like the empire it was a truly cosmopolitan metropolis. However lurking beneath the surface of this modern façade were long held prejudices and feuds. Anti-Semitism was asserting itself amongst the political elite and a belief in a unification with the German second Reich were also starting to become ever more popular. Tallis explores all these issues as background in this murder mystery. Liebermann himself a Jew is aware of the anti Jewish feelings that exist and the roots of the political turmoil and genocide that was to follow in the next 30 years over the course of two world war were even then apparent.
Tallis brings to life the city, which has as important a presence in the story as Victorian fog bound London is in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. We are presented with a cultural haven of intellectual coffee houses and opulent opera but this is sharply contrasted with the drug infused brothels in the uglier parts of the city.
Tallis packs the story with interesting background and subplots that really give the book a sense of the period. This is a time when the modern world as we would recognise it was about to be born, industrialisation had been around for some time but now modern science was being established. The disciplines of mental health were being revolutionised but only with strong opposition or the conservatives in the field. Through the Liebermann character Tallis comments on the intransigence of many in the scientific community to change, we also we the struggle that women had at the time to be taken seriously as anything apart from wives and mothers. In his dealings with the English governess and amateur scientist Amelia Lydgate, Leibermann comes up against the strong cultural anti female prejudice of the time.
Despite this progressive cultural and scientific enlightenment, mysticism and superstitions still held sway and the idea of the supernatural was if anything becoming more popular, mediums and spiritualist often being championed by intellectuals such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. It is this dichotomy existing in society that is a fascinating subject for Tallis to examine and that underpins the mystery.
The structure of the book is in itself quite distinctive. The chapters are often very short only a few pages dealing with one specific isolated incident. The progress of the story is thus rather stuttering but instead of making the narrative hard to follow it lends urgency to it and entices the reader to find out what would happen next.
As in any good murder mystery the list of possible suspects is long and colourful. Each seems to have something to hide and some aspect that might make then a plausible potential murderer. There are also plenty of red herrings and dead end to keep the reader's mind alert throughout. There is also a fair amount of gory details from post-mortems and crime scenes to keep the gore hounds happy.
The two key characters are easily comparable to Holmes and Watson although a strict comparison doesn't really apply. Liebermann is the Holmes character in many ways, he is logical, he has a forensic eye and excellent powers of deduction but he is also passionate and often acts on instinct. Rheinhardt is hard working and more conservative in his approach, he doesn't have the intellectual ability of Liebermann but his input into the cases is more than the mere supporting role that Dr Watson used to provide. Through the course of the story we get to know the characters and by way of a number of subplots the strengths and weaknesses of each are revealed. We are also left in no doubt by the introduction of other for now peripheral characters that this story is part of a series that will develop their relationships as time goes by.
As you can gather there is much to admire and enjoy in this first book of the Liebermann series but inevitably it is not perfect. Frank Tallis tries hard to impress us with the obvious historical research he has done and as such he falls into the common trap of such novels, that is he over elaborates descriptive detail in order to emphasise time and place. We thus get descriptions of the different cakes and deserts serves by the famous Viennese Cafes and details of tram lines and buildings. Some detail of course is essential to bring the place to life but in some places it felt stilted and superfluous to the narrative. I'm putting this down to over enthusiasm of a first time author to impress his readers with the work that had to be done behind the scenes of any well written historical novel and I hope that with future instalment Tallis will find a more natural style in this respect. This is a small quibble however and overall 'Mortal Mischief' is a good read and will be especially appealing to Sherlock Holmes fans or anyone who likes mystery thrillers with a little more depth than the average Dan Brown offering.
'Mortal Mischief' is available from Amazon in Paperback (320 pages-
ISBN-10: 0099471280 /ISBN-13: 978-0099471288) for £5.59 (+p&p) at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2007
Summary: An historical murder mystery set in 1900s Vienna