I'm recycling this photo as it fits Frank Tallis's Vienna Blood so perfectly. It seems only right that the book should be read accompanied by a hot cup of coffee--maybe a Brauner or if it's a late night maybe a Schwarzer. All the better if there is something sweet on the side.
"A waiter arrived with a tray full of coffee and cakes: a Viennese walnut-and-apple torte topped with waves of cream and sprinkled with cinnamon and silver pearls, some poppy seed strudel and a thick spongy wedge of guglhupf."
Yes, please. I know I have on more than one occasion mentioned how I could easily subsist on a reading diet filled almost entirely with mysteries. My diet would be varied within the genre however. I like vintage mysteries, suspense stories, no-nonsense puzzles that are pure mystery solving, edge-of- your-seat thrillers that twist and turn, gritty crime novels, cozies where the characters might be more interesting than the actual mystery and an occasional historical mystery. Frank Tallis would cross over a few of these categories. He writes wonderful historical mysteries set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and while at the heart of them is a puzzle to solve, the characters, setting and atmosphere all combine to make this a satisfying series to follow.
I've let far too much time pass between reading his first Max Liebermann mystery, A Death in Vienna, and this second instalment. I had no trouble, though, picking up the thread and reacquainting myself with Max and Detective Inspector Oscar Rheinhardt. While you expect a mystery to feature a police officer or detective, Max is really the star of the show. He's a student of psychology and follower of Freud and a good friend of Oscar Rheinhardt's, an older man with a wife and family and a well respected and somewhat progressive police officer. Max has been recently betrothed to the beautiful Clara Weiss who has her sights set on climbing the Viennese social ladder. Max's ambitions and keen interest in aiding Dectective Rheinhardt often cause friction bwtween the two. One is all about science and learning and the other all about Society.
Much like the first novel, the story opens with a death, though in this case it is an unusual one. The crime involves the murder of a very large anaconda named Hildegard in the Vienna Zoo--a favorite of the Emperor. The reptile was cleanly sliced into three segments--a senseless crime and seemingly insignificant, but one that Detective Rheinhardt must investigate. Perhaps it's all smoke and mirrors as shortly after Oscar is called to a whorehouse in Spittelberg where a massacre has taken place. There he finds the bodies of four women horribly mutilated, perhaps even ritualistically so. It's a shocking scene and Max is pulled in to the case to give his opinion and ideas on the sort of person who would commit such a heinous act. As the Army's barracks are located close by and many of the men were known to have frequented the brothel, it's only natural for Oscar to begin his investigation there.
The bodies begin stacking up, however, and while the murders may likely be connected the choice of victims appears oddly random. Interleaved between the investigations of the murders are scenes of the goings-on in certain secret societies like the freemasons that apparently thrived in Vienna at the time. And there is the first glimpse of the specter of National Socialism rearing its ugly head. What at first seems purely innocuous will later become sinister in both tone and action.
Tallis captures the mood and atmosphere of 1902 Vienna wonderfully. You can smell the coffee and taste the pastries and feel the decadence of life in this city on the cusp of modernity. The world is changing and Max is ready to embrace it, Oscar perhaps a little less so, but he is certainly open to new ways of thinking, especially when it comes to his investigations. Unfortunately this modern thinking is accompanied by antisemitism and a general xenophobia of foreigners. Being Jewish Max experiences it. But this is just one problem he must contend with. To be betrothed to Clara Weiss makes both families happy, but Max feels an inner turmoil and questions his own motivations. It doesn't help that a brilliant young Englishwoman and student of the sciences, who made an appearance in the first book, is asked to aid in the investigation as well. A young woman Max should not be thinking of in the way he does.
I thought Tallis portrayed the elegant city of Vienna perfectly last time out and I wasn't disappointed this time either. As much as I liked the piecing together of the mystery, and it is a complex one wrapped up in the culture of Vienna, it's really the characters and their lives that kept me turning the pages in Vienna Blood and who are going to make me reach for Fatal Lies, and hopefully much sooner than last time. Only be warned not to read this one on an empty stomach. You'll be craving a slice of something delectable in a Viennese coffeehouse, too, where Max and Oscar are often found mulling over the clues in their latest case.