Turn of the century Vienna - at the time, the social, cultural and scientific centre of a Europe rapidly entering the modern world of the twentieth century - serves as the setting for Frank Tallis' debut historical mystery - a provocative, head-scratching locked room mystery. The very deceased and brutally murdered body of the colourful and beautiful medium Fräulein Löwenstein has been found in her apartments - securely locked and bolted from the inside. The puzzle deepens and becomes even more cryptic as an autopsy reveals a gunshot wound to the heart. There is a very clear entrance wound but there is no exit wound and there is also no bullet to be found in her body.
Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, an ardent fan of the newest applications of criminology and psychology, frequently finds himself at odds with his superiors who believe in a more dogged persevering application of older tried and true procedures in the solution of crimes. Rheinhardt and his companion, Max Liebermann, a physician who is also exploring the cutting edge possibilities of his own area of expertise - the developing science of psychoanalysis - believe the murderer can be found among the small group of somewhat eccentric folks that form Fräulein Löwenstein's regular séance circle.
To be sure, "A Death in Vienna" is a very workmanlike, well-constructed and completely entertaining locked room murder mystery but it is also so very much more. It is a wonderfully informative essay on some of the advances in modern medicine that were being developed at that time such as shock therapy, psychoanalysis, blood typing and blood transfusion.
It is an enthusiastic travelogue of what is arguably the most beautiful, charming and exciting city in all of Europe - the coffee shops, the scrumptious, tantalizing pastries, the Ringstrasse, the Opera House and the Musikverein, Karlskirche and Stephansdom, the Riesenrad ferris wheel and Prater Park.
Through Tallis' wonderful narrative skills, one can almost imagine hearing the romantic music of the time and admiring its flamboyant composers who were such an important part of the Viennese social and cultural scene at the time - Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert and, in particular, the contentious and controversial Gustav Mahler, who had held the post of the Director of the Vienna Opera since 1897.
Tallis accurately portrays the breathless, often scandalized reaction of the Viennese artistic community to Gustav Klimt's racy and often overtly sexual style of painting that was, in only a few years time, to form the core of the Viennese Secessionist movement now celebrated in the Belvedere Palace.
Last but not least, he breathes life into his complex characters who are so credible, so human, so complete and so well-crafted as to turn other more experience and vastly more celebrated authors completely green with envy.
For once, I completely agree with some of the marketing information on the cover. The New York Times Book Review called it an "elegant historical mystery ... stylishly presented and intelligently resolved." I couldn't agree more. Highly recommended.
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