In Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century, Max Liebermann is at the forefront of psychoanalysis, practicing the controversial new science with all the skill of a master detective. Every dream, inflection, or slip of tongue in his “hysterical” patients has meaning and reveals some hidden truth. When a mysterious and beautiful medium dies under extraordinary circumstances, Max’s good friend, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, calls for his expert assistance. The medium’s body has been found in a room that can only be locked from the inside. Her body has been shot, but there’s no gun and absolutely no trace of a bullet. On a table lies a suicide note, claiming that there is “such a thing as forbidden knowledge." All signs point to a supernatural killer, but Liebermann the scientist is not so easily convinced.
Set in the Vienna of Freud, Klimt, and Mahler, a time of unprecedented activity in the worlds of philosophy, science, and art, A Death in Vienna is an elegantly written novel, taut with suspense and rich in historical details.
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It was the day of the great storm. I remember it well because my father – Mendel Liebermann – had suggested that we meet for coffee at The Imperial. I had a strong suspicion that something was on his mind ...
A roiling mass of black cloud had risen from behind the Opera House like a volcanic eruption of sulphurous smoke and ash. Its dimensions suggested impending doom – an epic catastrophe on the scale of Pompeii. In the strange amber light, the surrounding buildings had become jaundiced. Perched on the rooftops, the decorative statuary – classical figures and triumphal eagles – seemed to have been carved from brimstone. A fork of lightning flowed down the mountain of cloud like a river of molten iron. The earth trembled and the air stirred, yet still there was no rain. The coming storm seemed to be saving itself – building its reserves of power in preparation for an apocalyptic deluge.
The tram bell sounded, rousing Liebermann from his reverie and dispersing a group of horse-drawn carriages on the lines.
As the tram rolled forwards, Liebermann wondered why his father had wanted to see him. It wasn't that such a meeting was unusual; they often met for coffee. Rather, it was something about the manner in which the invitation had been issued. Mendel's voice had been curiously strained – reedy and equivocal. Moreover, his nonchalance had been unconvincing, suggesting to Liebermann the concealment of an ulterior – or perhaps even unconscious – motive. But what might that be?
The tram slowed in the heavy traffic of the Karntner Ring and Liebermann jumped off before the vehicle had reached its stop. He raised the collar of his astrakhan coat against the wind and hurried towards his destination.
Even though lunch had already been served, The Imperial was seething with activity. Waiters, with silver trays held high, were dodging each other between crowded tables, and the air was filled with animated conversation. At the back of the café, a pianist was playing a Chopin mazurka. Liebermann wiped the condensation off his spectacles with a handkerchief and hung his coat on the stand.
'Good afternoon, Herr Doctor.'
Liebermann recognised the voice and without turning replied: 'Good afternoon, Bruno. I trust you are well?'
'I am, sir. Very well indeed.'
When Liebermann turned, the waiter continued: 'If you'd like to come this way, sir. Your father is already here.'
Bruno beckoned, and guided Liebermann through the hectic room. They arrived at a table near the back, where Mendel was concealed behind the densely printed sheets of the Weiner Zeitung.
'Herr Liebermann?' said Bruno. Mendel folded his paper. He was a thickset man with a substantial beard and bushy eyebrows. His expression was somewhat severe – although softened by a liberal network of laughter lines. The waiter added: 'Your son.'
'Ahh, Maxim!' said the old man. 'There you are!' He sounded a little irritated, as though he had been kept waiting.
After a moment's hesitation, Liebermann replied: 'But I'm early, father.'
Mendel consulted his pocket watch.
'So you are. Well, sit down, sit down. Another Pharisäer for me and ... Max?' He invited his son to order.
'A Schwarzer, please, Bruno.'
The waiter executed a modest bow and was gone.
'So,' said Mendel. 'How are you, my boy?'
'Very well, father.'
'You're looking a bit thinner than usual.'
'I hadn't noticed.'
'Are you eating properly?'
Liebermann laughed: 'Very well, as it happens. And how are you, father?'
'Achh! Good days and bad days, you know how it is. I'm seeing that specialist you recommended, Pintsch. And there is some improvement, I suppose. But my back isn't much better.'
'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.'
Mendel dismissed his son's remark with a wave of his hand.
'Do you want something to eat?' Mendel pushed the menu across the table. 'You look like you need it. I think I'll have the Topfenstrudel.'
Liebermann studied the extensive cakelist: Apfeltorte, Cremeschnitte, Truffeltorte, Apfelstrudel. It ran on over several pages.
'Your mother sends her love,' said Mendel, 'and would like to know when she can expect to see you again.' His expression hovered somewhere between sympathy and reprimand.
'I'm sorry, father,' said Liebermann. 'I've been very busy. Too many patients ... Tell mother I'll try to see her next week. Friday, perhaps?' 'Then you must come to dinner.'
'Yes,' said Liebermann, suddenly feeling that he had already committed himself more than he really wanted. 'Yes. Thank you.' He looked down at the menu again: Dobostorte, Gugelhupf, Linzertorte. The Chopin mazurka ended on a loud minor chord, and a ripple of applause passed through the café audience. Encouraged, the pianist played a glittering arpeggio figure on the upper keys, under which he introduced the melody of a popular waltz. A group of people seated near the window began another round of appreciative clapping.
Bruno returned with the coffees and stood to attention with his pencil and notepad.
'The Topfenstrudel,' said Mendel.
'The Rehrücken, please,' said Liebermann.
Mendel stirred the cream into his Pharisäer – which came with a tot of rum – and immediately started to talk about the family textile business. This was not unusual. Indeed, it had become something of a tradition. Profits had risen, and Mendel was thinking of expanding the enterprise: another factory, or even a shop, perhaps. Now that the meddling bureaucrats had lifted the ban on department stores, he could see a future in retail – new opportunities. His old friend Blomberg had already opened a successful department store and had suggested that they might go into partnership. Throughout, Mendel's expression was eager and clearly mindful of his son's reactions.
Liebermann understood why his father kept him so well informed. Although he was proud of Liebermann's academic achievements, he still hoped that one day young Max would step into his shoes.
Mendel's voice slowed when he noticed his son's hand. The fingers seemed to be following the pianist's melody – treating the edge of the table like a keyboard.
'Are you listening?' said Mendel.
'Yes. Of course I'm listening,' Liebermann replied. He had become accustomed to such questioning and could no longer be caught out, as was once the case. 'You're thinking of going into business with Herr Blomberg.'
Liebermann assumed a characteristic position. His right hand – shaped like a gun – pressed against his cheek, the index finger resting gently against the right temple. It was a 'listening' position favoured by many psychiatrists.
'So – what do you think? A good idea?' asked Mendel.
'Well, if the existing department store is profitable, that sounds reasonable enough.'
'It's a considerable investment.'
'I'm sure it is.'
The old man stroked his beard. 'You don't seem to be very keen on the idea.'
'Father, does it matter what I think?'
'No. I suppose not.' His disappointment was palpable.
Liebermann looked away. He took no joy in disappointing his father and now felt guilty. The old man's motives were entirely laudable and Liebermann was perfectly aware that his comfortable standard of living was sustained – at least in part – by Mendel's exemplary management of the family business. Yet he couldn't ever imagine himself running a factory or managing a department store. The idea was ludicrous.
As these thoughts were passing through his mind, Liebermann noticed the arrival of a gentleman in his middle years. On entering the café, the man removed his hat and surveyed the scene. His hair was combed to the side, creating a deep side parting, and his neatly trimmed moustache and beard were almost entirely grey. He received a warm welcome from the head waiter who helped him to take his coat off. He was immaculately dressed in pinstriped trousers, a wide-lapelled jacket and a 'showy' waistcoat. He must have made a quip, because the head waiter suddenly began laughing. The man seemed in no hurry to find a seat and stood by the door, listening intently to the waiter, who now appeared – Liebermann thought – to have started to tell a story.
Mendel saw that his son had become distracted.
'Know him, do you?'
'Doctor Freud,' said Mendel in a flat voice.
Liebermann was astonished that his father knew the man's identity.
'Yes, I do know him. And it's Professor Freud, actually.'
'Professor Freud, then,' said Mendel. 'But he hasn't been a professor for very long, has he?'
'A few months,' said Liebermann, raising his eyebrows. 'How did you know that?'
'He comes to the lodge.'
'Oh yes, of course.'
'Although God knows why. I'm not sure what sort of a Jew he's supposed to be. He doesn't seem to believe in anything. And as for his ideas ...' Mendel shook his head. 'He gave us a talk last year. Scandalous. How well do you know him?'
'Quite well ... We meet occasionally to discuss his work.'
'What? You think there's something in it?'
'The book he wrote with Breuer on hysteria was excellent and The Interpretation of Dreams is ... well, a masterpiece. Of course, I don't agree with everything he says. Even so, I've found his treatment suggestions very useful.'
'Then you must be in a minority.'
'Undoubtedly. But I am convinced that Professor Freud's system – a system that he calls psychoanalysis – will become more widely accepted.'
'Not in Vienna.'
'I don't know. One or two of my colleagues, other junior psychiatrists, are very interested in Professor Freud's ideas.'
Mendel's brow furrowed: 'Some of the things he said last year were obscene. I pity those in his care.'
'I would be the first to admit,' said Liebermann, 'that he has become somewhat preoccupied – of late – with the erotic life of his patients. However, his understanding of the human mind extends well beyond our animal instincts.'
The professor was still standing by the door with the head waiter. He suddenly burst out laughing and slapped his companion on the back. It was clear that the head waiter had just told him a joke.
'Dear God,' said Mendel under his breath, 'I hope he doesn't come this way.' Then he sighed with relief as Professor Freud was ushered to a table beyond their view. Mendel was about to say something else but stopped when Bruno arrived with the cakes.
'Topfenstrudel for Herr Liebermann and Rehrücken for Herr Doctor Liebermann. More coffee?' Bruno gestured towards Mendel's empty glass.
'Yes, why not? A Mélange and another Schwarzer for my son.'
Mendel looked enviously at his son's gateau, a large glazed chocolate sponge cake shaped like a saddle of deer, filled with apricot jam and studded with almonds. His own order was less arresting, being a simple pastry filled with sweet curd cheese.
Liebermann noticed his father's lingering gaze.
'You should have ordered one too.'
Mendel shook his head: 'Pitsch told me I must lose weight.'
'Well, you won't lose weight eating Topfenstrudel.'
Mendel shrugged and took a mouthful of pastry but stopped chewing when a loud thunderclap shook the building. 'It's going to be a bad one,' said Mendel, nodding towards the window. Outside, Vienna had succumbed to a preternatural twilight.
'Maxim,' Mendel continued, 'I wanted to see you today for a reason. A specific reason.'
At last, thought Liebermann. Finally, he was about to discover the true purpose of their meeting. Liebermann braced himself mentally, still unsure of what to expect.
'You probably think it's nothing to do with me,' Mendel added. 'But —' He stopped abruptly and pushed the severed corner of his Topfenstrudel around the plate with his fork.
'What is it, father?'
'I was speaking to Herr Weiss the other day and ...' Again his sentence tailed off. 'Maxim.' This time he returned to his task with greater determination. 'You and Clara seem to be getting along well enough and – understandably, I think – Herr Weiss is anxious to know of your intentions.'
'Yes,' said Mendel, looking at his son. 'Your intentions.' He carried on eating his cake.
'I see,' said Liebermann, somewhat taken aback. Although he had considered many subjects that his father might wish to discuss, his relationship with Clara Weiss had not been one of them. Yet now the omission seemed obvious.
'Well,' replied Liebermann. 'What can I say? I like Clara very much.'
Mendel wiped his mouth with a napkin and leaned forwards.
'And ...' Liebermann looked into his father's censorious eyes. 'And ... I suppose that my intention is, in the fullness of time to —' (Now it was his turn to hesitate.)
'To marry her. That is – if she'll have me.'
Mendel relaxed back in his chair. He was clearly relieved and a broad smile lifted his grave features.
'Of course she'll marry you. Why shouldn't she?'
'Sometimes we seem to be ... well, just good friends.' In all areas of life, Liebermann was entirely confident of his powers of perception; however, where Clara was concerned, he was never entirely sure if her affectionate gestures were tokens of love or merely of flirtation. Desire had blunted his clinical acumen. 'It isn't always clear what —'
'You have nothing to worry about,' Mendel interrupted, inclining his hand in a courtly gesture. 'Believe me.' He leaned forward again, and squeezed his son's arm: 'Nothing to worry about at all. Now eat your Rehrücken!'
But Liebermann had no desire to eat. Clara had obviously told her father that she would accept a proposal of marriage. He had nothing to worry about. Liebermann thought of her delicate features: her expressive eyes, small nose, and rose-petal lips – her straight back and slender waist. She was going to be his wife. She was going to be his Clara.
'I won't tell your mother,' continued Mendel. 'I'll leave that to you. She'll be delighted, of course. Delighted. As you know, she's very fond of Clara. In fact, she was saying only the other day how pretty Clara's become. And they're a good family, the Weisses. Good people. Jacob and I go back many, many years. We went to the same school, you know, in Leopoldstadt. And his father helped my father – that's your grandfather – into the trade. They shared a market stall together.'
Liebermann had been told this more times than he cared to remember. Even so, he knew that his father took immense pleasure in reiterating family history, and simulated interest as well as he could. Mendel warmed to his theme, and continued to expound upon the several other links that existed between the Weiss and Liebermann families. The Rehrücken helped Liebermann to survive the repetition. Eventually, when Mendel had exhausted the topic, he attracted Bruno's attention and ordered more coffee and cigars.
'You know, Maxim,' said Mendel, 'with marriage comes much responsibility.'
'You have to think about the future.'
'Now tell me, will you really be able to provide for a young family on that salary of yours?'
Liebermann smiled at his father. It was extraordinary how Mendel never missed an opportunity.
'Yes,' Liebermann replied patiently. 'In due course, I think I will.'
'We'll see ...'
The old man managed to sustain his stern expression for a few seconds longer before allowing himself a burst of laughter. Again, he reached over the table, and patted his son on the shoulder.
'Congratulations, my boy.'
The gesture was curiously affecting, and Liebermann recognised that – in spite of their differences – the relationship they shared was predicated on love. His throat felt tight and his eyes prickled. The bustle of the café faded as the two men stared at each other, suspended in a rare and vivid moment of mutual understanding.
'Excuse me,' said Mendel, rising precipitately and setting off towards the cloakroom. But the old man had been too slow. Liebermann had already observed a tear in his eye.
Liebermann watched his father disappear into the bustling Ringstrasse crowd. A gust of wind reminded him that – unlike Mendel – he was not carrying an umbrella. Fortunately, a cab was waiting just outside The Imperial. There was another rumble of thunder – the growl of a discontented minor god. It made the cab horse toss its head, jangle its bridle, and stroke the cobbles with a nervous hoof.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Death in Vienna"
Copyright © 2005 Frank Tallis.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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