Friday, August 19, 2011

A Death in Vienna, a pretty good psychological historical mystery

A Death in Vienna (2005, Mortal Mischief in the UK, it seems) is a historical mystery by Frank Tallis, the first of what will soon by six books starring a Holmes-like psychiatrist who solves crimes in turn of the century Vienna alongside a Watson-like police detective.  Tallis gives himself the amusing challenge of a combination locked room \ disappearing bullet mystery.  Sigmund Freud appears as a character in some of the novel’s best scenes; he is presented primarily as a collector, of antique figurines and Yiddish jokes.  The novel is pretty good.

I could complain about the usual stuff – the arbitrariness of the central mystery, particularly of the solution; the absurdity of the climax (mystery authors, I beg you: risk anti-climax!); the thinness of all but a few characters; the cut-and-paste assemblage of much of the historical detail (a Mahler concert in this chapter, a Klimt exhibit in another); and worst of all the unnecessarily manipulative withholding of information in the name of a misguided attempt at suspense.  Within the world of mysteries, again, all of this is pretty good, but that is not the world in which I live.

Instead, I want to emphasize something interesting.  The murder mystery plot is paralleled by one of the psychiatrist’s cases, a woman who is suffering from partial paralysis due to a repressed trauma.  The psychiatrist hero works on the mystery for a chapter, then treats his patient in the next.  The medical case is entirely unrelated to the mystery, or, really, it is merely thematically related.  The most important connection is general:  the methodological similarity between solving the whodunnit and treating the patient, piecing together the clues from her behavior, her symptoms, to solve her personal mystery.

I have no doubt that there have been other psychiatrist detectives and other mysteries with this structure, but it was new to me, and more importantly the clinical sections were completely convincing and interesting for their own sake.  Tallis is himself a clinical psychiatrist.  He is enormously knowledgeable about Vienna, but he seemed more deeply invested in the practice and history of his profession.

Unfortunately, Tallis eventually follows formula and pulls the parallel lines together, although not as gruesomely as I feared – say the killer discovers the relationship kidnaps the patient ethical dilemma heroic rescue shot in the shoulder blah blah blah.  Tallis’s plot is quite a bit better than that, although it is hard to forgive this:

Amelia paused respectfully before saying, “There is an error?”

“My good woman,” said Holz, “surely you do not mean to ascribe theta with these parameter values? An elementary mistake!”

Holz tossed the paper back at Amelia, who caught it before it fluttered to the floor.  (420)

Oh no, Herr Professor Holz, she picked that value of theta on purpose, thus solving, with mathematics, the missing bullet part of the mystery.

I am following the daring reviewer strategy of only quoting the single worst part of the novel.  If you can tolerate that, I assure you that the rest of the novel is better written and much less ridiculous, and it was satisfying plane and train reading.


  1. I liked this one when I read it. It's not flawless but still enjoyable.

  2. Your review cracked me up. I'm too much of a purist with my detective fiction to allow for subplots, but you make a good case for the book. I wonder if there is enough in the psychological plot line to jettison the detective story altogether.

  3. I could imagine a more "literary" book that switched the proportions, which spent most of its time with the psychiatric practice but had a subplot in which the psychiatrist occasionally consults with the police. So the more gruesome and bizarre elements of the external world are cleverly contrasted with the internal world of his patients. Could be a good novel, at least until the psychiatrist goes insane and begins murdering his patients, or whatever punchy, garish way the author chooses to ruin his book.

    I would happily read another Tallis novel, but I doubt I would make much effort to seek one out.

  4. That was my response also. It was interesting in some ways, the background for example. It was a selection for a f-t-f mystery group I belong to.

    I would have no objection if another was selected by the group, but in the years that have passed since I read the book, I haven't gone after any of the others in the series.

  5. "I am following the daring reviewer strategy of only quoting the single worst part of the novel. If you can tolerate that, I assure you that the rest of the novel is better written and much less ridiculous,..."

    Great strategy!

    By the way, I think A Death in Vienna is a much better title than Mortal Mischief.

  6. Two years ago, I spent a week writing about historical mysteries, beginning here, which may elucidate some of the shorthand in this post.

    Amazing consensus among those who have read this novel. I completely agree about in ww's preference for the American title over the strangely generic British one.

  7. I didn't mention it in my first comment, but I also think the US title is better than the UK title.

    Sometimes I can figure out why the title was changed, but I'm stumped this time.

  8. Sounds likea good read for the end of summer

  9. A good book to read for the end of summer, or any other time when the reader's concentration is at a low ebb and reading a better Viennese book, Karl Kraus or Robert Musil or what have you, is unachievable.

    I think the generic UK title actually came first in this case. It was a savvy American publisher, or perhaps an author grabbing a chance to correct an error, who punched up the title.