There I was at Open Books, looking for Dorothy Sayers. Disappointed that all the Wimsey books in stock were ones I'd already read (I'm dangerously close to having drawn that well dry), I let my eyes wander over the Mystery section, when A Death in Vienna, shelved under T for Tallis, Frank, caught my eye. I read the back. It was set in 1902. It sounded okay. So I bought it. This is the least thought I have put into selecting a book in a very long time. And it pretty much paid off.
There are five books so far in the series: A Death in Vienna, Vienna Blood, Fatal Lies, Vienna Secrets, and Vienna Twilight, and thanks to the Chicago Public Library I have now read all of them, in order. Thank you to the good citizens of Chicago for not impeding me in this because it really messes me up when I can't read things in order. I liked them, and would have kept going for probably another couple of books if this were 2014 and there were another couple of books in the series. I like them. I feel the need to repeat that because now I might end up writing some things that might sound slightly insulting.
There are two main characters, Max Liebermann (a psychologist and devotee of Freud's new-fangled theories) and Oskar Rheinhardt (a police detective with an admirable love of cake). Tallis strikes a nice balance with these two; they work together well, each in his own sphere. It's easy to have characters who seem to do nothing but solve mysteries, and I think one of the big strengths of the books is that Tallis really succeeds in anchoring the events of the stories in the flow of the normal passage of time and normal lives. Not that I don't usually overlook the mystery-story cliche of a small village with regular, frequent violent deaths. Furthermore, there's plenty of love and family dynamics and so even though every case seems to involve a serial killer, the books as a whole are well rounded out.
Liebermann and Rheinhardt like to play music together, and also get together in cafes to drink coffee and eat pastries, both of which activities are described in loving detail. I see on Amazon that some reviewers (not the mob, I'm talking about the short professional blurbs) draw a straight line between Liebermann and Rheinhardt and Aubrey and Maturin, which I think is unwarranted. As a devoted reader of Patrick O'Brian's superlative seafaring series, I don't think it's fair to accuse Tallis of too much borrowing. The music-playing makes ample sense within the setting, as does the friendship dynamic, so I think it all stands on its merits.
Incidentally, I'm fairly sure that Tallis just sidesteps the whole "origins" problem by just asserting in the first book that they're friends and have worked together before.
I say: well done, Frank Tallis. I suppose some people would cry laziness or bad form, but I'm perfectly happy just to get on with things without some kind of awkward shoehorning-in of backstory.
The mysteries themselves are okay; lots of blood and gore and complex solutions. Tallis has two central gimmicks (not used in a pejorative sense) in his series. First, the historical setting and particularly Liebermann's Jewish heritage within that setting. This aspect is okay, but starting to get a little creaky toward the end of the series-so-far.
Second is the psychoanalysis, which is fascinating for a totally different reason than the author (must) intend. Liebermann's contribution to the investigations is his application of Freud's hot-off-the-pen theories - Freud is actually a character in the books, and Liebermann often meets with him to discuss interpretations. Tallis himself is described in his author bio as "a practicing clinical psychologist and an expert in obsessional states." And yet! None of Max/Tallis/Freud's insights seem terribly surprising to this veteran of Law and Order: SVU. I'm going to take Tallis' intelligence and authority at face value, leaving only the following possible conclusions:
1. Freud's theories have really permeated our modern consciousness, to the degree that even I am aware of them.
2. Tallis underestimates the psychoanalytical training his readers (I) have had from the eminent Doctor Huang and his colleagues at NYPD's SVU.
3. There really is only so much that can be said about murderous sexual perversion.
And on that hopeful note I shall leave you.