On the face of it, this is simply a police procedural where the sleuth, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt, is assisted in his investigations – the search for a serial-killer – by a psychiatrist, Dr Max Liebermann, and it just happens to be set in in Vienna in 1902.
We soon realise there is more to it than that.
Liebermann is a Jew – as of course was Freud, whose disciple Liebermann is – and this is a society in which Jews are generally looked down upon, and a significant proportion of the population seems to be fanatically “racist” in a nordic, Wagnerian, proto-Nazi sense. The weltanschauung that resulted in Freud having to end his days in London was already in place.
Faced with an insult from an army officer, what is a Jew supposed to do? “A Jew is born without honour, and therefore is not entitled to demand satisfaction” – and that is official.
The author, Frank Tallis, has certainly done his homework, and it is an eye-opener.
We witness the first appearance of a symbol no one recognises until Freud, an expert on ancient eastern religions, discovers that it is called a “swastika”.
At one point they are discussing a painting:
‘Do you remember Olbricht’s depiction of a vast barbarian horde?’
‘Yes – a great sea of minute faces.’
‘If you had studied them more closely you would have noticed that each one was a miniature essay in xenophobic predjudice. The horde was comprised of crude charicatures of Jews, Slavs and the southern races: the enemies who must be defeated in order to protect and preserve the ancient German bloodlines.’
And a visting Englishman delivers a lecture in faultless German to an admiring audience, among whom is Baron von Triebenbach.
“When the time comes, thought von Triebenbach, we shall certainly be able to depend on the English.”
Dramatic irony indeed.
And the story itself? The story is a perfect example of the historical mystery, but I have to say that the two protagonists, Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt and Dr Max Liebermann, did not exactly set my heart beating faster. Like Holmes and Watson without the entertaining – and endearing – eccentricities. Read it though, for wonderful evocation of time and place: you are present at the birth of nazism. And you are horrified.