Headless body sets the scene for Dr Max's new murder riddle

PUBLISHED: 10:56 12 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 07 September 2010

Sleuth Viennese psychiatrist Dr Max Liebermann is back facing his latest case – the decapitated body of a monk. His creator, Frank Tallis, tells Katie Masters how his clinical experience helped create his character A horrible crime is committed in turn-o

Sleuth Viennese psychiatrist Dr Max Liebermann is back facing his latest case - the decapitated body of a monk. His creator, Frank Tallis, tells Katie Masters how his clinical experience helped create his character

A horrible crime is committed in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna. The dead body of a monk is found lying at the foot of a plague column. His decapitated head is a few feet away, torn from his shoulders with what appears to be supernatural strength. Who - or what - is the killer?

That's the question confronting psychiatrist Dr Max Liebermann and Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt in Darkness Rising - the latest in Highgate author Frank Tallis's series of detective thrillers, published today by Century Books.

For those who haven't read Tallis before, the Liebermann/ Rheinhardt coupling has echoes of Holmes and Watson - albeit in an Austrian setting.

"Rheinhardt is definitely the warmer character," says Tallis.

"Liebermann is a clinician. He can be detached intellectually when he looks at suffering.

"And he can be smug - sometimes intolerably so. He suffers from the problem that a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists have, which is that he argues beyond the power of his theories."

Tallis is speaking from experience.

He spent years working as a clinical psychologist - first at the Institute of Psychiatry in South London and later in private practice.

He uses that background in the books, which are as interesting for their introduction to the early years of psychoanalysis as for their whodunit plots.

It was because Freud lived in the Vienna of the 1900s that the series is set then.

"But the more I dug into the cultural context of that era, the richer it seemed to be.

"This was a time when there were breakthroughs in all areas, not just the revolution of psychology, but in philosophy, engineering, mathematics, medicine - all happening in Vienna.

"Famous figures like Wittgenstein, Mahler and Klimt were all living in the same few streets and going to the same cafes."

Tallis is very strong on evocation of place. His books really succeed in bringing 1900s Vienna to life - its history, architecture, music, art and fashion as well as its anti-Semitism.

Liebermann - like Freud - is Jewish and regularly runs up against prejudice as a result.

But the writing style Tallis has chosen is fairly stiff. It's a deliberate affectation, adopted as a way of suggesting the language of the time and the formality of Viennese society.

It does initially make the books a bit hard going. But they're worth persevering with, as the plots are carefully planned and full of subtle clues for armchair detectives.

Darkness Rising takes on the esoteric realms of Jewish mysticism, with a cast of menacing rabbis, altruistic socialites, backstabbing politicians - and cake.

"I really enjoy writing about cakes," Tallis says. "I have a terrible, terrible weakness for pastries."

He's not lying. Interspersed with the sinister murders and the cultural detail are long paragraphs dedicated to gluttonous descriptions of cream-laden treats.

Darkness Rising may not be the best book to read if you're on a New Year's diet. If not, dig in.

Darkness Rising is out now priced £12.99.


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