A murder mystery set in Vienna in 1902 sounded like a terrific idea. Teaming up to solve the mystery: Oskar Reinhardt, a detective, and his friend Dr. Max Liebermann, a doctor who experiments with the new treatment known as psychoanalysis. (Naturally Dr. Freud appears in a walk-on part.) The victim is a beautiful blonde clairvoyant who has been shot in a locked room. Along the way, the author places his characters in the famous coffee houses, at the Secession, and he even sets the climactic scene at the peak of the famous Reisenrand, the Ferris wheel in the Prater that Hitchcock so memorably employed in The Third Man.
It almost works, but Frank Tallis isn’t a terrific writer. Much of the historical and local color seems obligatory: why tell us exactly what everyone orders each time the characters sit down for a cup of coffee? Why trace their steps — right on this strasse, left on that brücke — when these are routes the characters would follow without thought? Why pause to tell us that Liebermann’s new coffee table was made by Koloman Moser? It’s all clumsy. And Tallis’s word choices are sometimes labored. “Weak spears of watery light angled through the mossy curtains, illuminating motes that glided through the air with the lymphatic grace of protozoa.” “Lymphatic grace?” If you say so.
That being said, the plot is satisfying and the pacing works nicely. The characters all feel a little bit second-hand, as if we’d met them before in other books (the bluestocking English governess, the sexually abusive bank president and his downtrodden wife, even the slightly plodding policeman Reinhardt and the more intuitive Dr. Liebermann). But the murder itself is quite ingenious and when all’s said and done, turn-of-the-century Vienna is a fine place to spend a few hours.