Fatal Lies

It is easy to see why so many novelists are drawn to early fin-de-si?cle Vienna. There is the music, art, literature, and architecture. There are figures such as Freud and Mahler who cry out for fictional reincarnation. Above all, there is the tottering empire, still glittering but rotten at its core, and churning beneath it the imminent chaos of the 20th century and of two world wars. Frank Tallis, in his exceptionally fine Dr. Liebermann/Inspector Rheinhardt series, incorporates all these elements with such subtlety and depth of understanding that his shadowy Vienna becomes both more familiar and more intriguing as the series progresses.

The psychological depth of these novels is hardly surprising; Tallis is a practicing clinical psychologist and one of Britain’s leading experts on obsessional states. You might expect his hero, Dr. Max Liebermann, to be a psychoanalyst and a student of Freud, as turns out to be the case. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Tallis’s latest novel, Fatal Lies, was inspired by the works of the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880–1942). “Saint Florian’s military school owes an enormous debt to the oberrealschule described in Musil’s The Confusions of
Young Torless,
” Tallis acknowledges, referring to the fictional academy in his own novel. He goes on to explain that Musil’s novel “?catalogues the psychological development of a young man as he struggles to make sense of a world in which bullying and ritual humiliation are commonplace” and is therefore “?a chilling exploration of the origins of fascism.”

Such pronouncements might portend a novel as heavy as a Viennese Sacher torte. But as past installments in the series have shown, Tallis folds his ideas lightly into crime narratives that never lose their buoyancy. He even allows us some romantic froth. In Vienna Blood, for example, Liebermann’s doomed engagement to the shallow Clara and his attraction to his English patient, Amelia Lydgate, created suspense as real as that generated by the novel’s murders. And Fatal Lies opens not with a march but a waltz. Amelia is in Liebermann’s arms, her “?flesh, shifting beneath velvet,” as they dance together at the annual detective’s ball.

The layers of meaning here are delicious. When Amelia, the novice, cannot “feel” the beat as Liebermann urges, he decodes the rhythm for her. “I believe,” continued Liebermann, “that the optimal speed of the Viennese waltz is said to be approximately thirty revolutions per minute.” He saw Amelia glance at his exposed wristwatch. “However, I do not think it will be necessary for us to gauge our performance against this nominal ideal.” Guided by science, Amelia improves while Liebermann, inflamed by the sight of his partner’s bare shoulders, nonetheless plays the familiar role of dry pedagogue. With easy grace, Tallis immediately conjures up the tensions — social, political, religious, sexual — that Liebermann, a secular Jew, and Amelia, a single woman and a scientist, embody.

While Liebermann and Amelia waltz, envying the grace of plump Inspector Rheinhardt and his wife, a boy is found dead at the nearby military academy. Rheinhardt leaves to investigate, and soon Liebermann is assisting his friend with observations, analysis, and intuition. “Human beings are always revealing themselves in the little things that they do,” Liebermann tells Rheinhardt, who has, of course, already noticed this. These two friends are often compared with Holmes and Watson or with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin, and there are obvious similarities. They play music together in private, for example, Liebermann accompanying Rheinhardt as he sings Schubert or Mahler, and the emotional truths revealed by music often illuminate their criminal investigations.

Such moments, in which the cultural and social climate of Vienna is so richly conveyed, are strikingly at odds with the military world of Saint Florian’s, where the novel spends much of its time and where some of its most disturbing incidents occur. We learn (before our detectives do) that the academy harbors a sadistic student fellowship whose leader, Kiefer Wolf, models himself on Nietzsche’s U¨bermensch and fortifies his “will to power” with bouts of torture and occasional sodomy. Here Tallis introduces us to killers in the making: the zealous, the terrified, the sadistic, and the simply dull boys who will, as adults, march in lockstep to keep the wheels of empire turning. On one visit to the academy, Rheinhardt and Liebermann observe the machinery in action. “Close by, some cadets were presenting arms, and beyond them more boys could be seen quick marching around a square of tar-grouted macadam. An order from the rifle lieutenant brought the fast-moving column to an abrupt halt. The two friends looked at each other, and their gazes communicated a mutual disquiet — a tacit suspicion of martial virtues.”

Soon another terrified boy will die, but was the earlier death the sadistic Wolf’s doing? As Rheinhardt and Liebermann interview the academy’s staff, they begin to suspect that young Zelenka, the first victim, may have been fatally involved in adult rather than juvenile affairs. Both men notice, for example, that Becker, the school’s deputy headmaster, has a strikingly attractive young wife. “Rheinhardt found himself glancing down at the young woman’s blouse. It was made of black lace and lined with flesh-colored silk, a combination that created a tantalizing illusion of immodesty. A gentleman’s eye was automatically drawn down to the transparent webbing, which promised the possibility of indecent revelation.” Tallis is a master of such details: Liebermann, for example, “?fishing noodles out of his broth and watching them slither off his spoon like tiny serpents;” a massive chandelier from which “Stalactites of congealed wax like a macabre merry-go-round of dangling atrophied fingers.” Through the claustrophobic atmosphere that Tallis so vividly creates, we repeatedly glimpse the illicit, the subversive.

Liebermann is hardly immune to such forces. Sexually frustrated in the earlier novels, here he enjoys a sudden, lusty affair with a mysterious Hungarian violinist who introduces him to absinthe. This sounds sillier than it is; Trezska is not only irresistible but possibly dangerous: when an Austrian general is found shot in the head and Hungarian revolutionaries become the most likely suspects, Liebermann’s dalliance almost turns deadly. The young doctor finds himself in a dark alley, facing down a man with a pistol, and the novel’s threads are pulled neatly — but not mechanically — together. The motives for the crimes at St. Florian’s turn out to be more shabby than monstrous, because Tallis is not that interested in monsters; the frailty of individuals and the fragility of civilized society are his main concern. So Fatal Lies ends where it began, with a waltz — as Liebermann, holding Amelia, contemplates “The rapid motion, the relentless turning, the dizzy euphoria, the heat of a woman’s back felt in the palm of one’s hand?.”