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.