Mephisto Waltz by master storyteller Frank Tallis is the seventh book in the iconic Max Liebermann mystery series—a tale of murder, romance, intrigue, and espionage set in the atmospheric world of fin de siecle Vienna.
Vienna, 1904: When Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt is called to the scene of a man who’s been shot and hideously burned with acid, he’s shocked. The scene looks staged—there are three chairs sitting in a row as if there was an audience to the murder—and the piano factory where he’s been found has been abandoned for a while. When Rheinhardt brings his friend—the psychoanalyst and Freud disciple, Dr. Max Liebermann—in on the autopsy, it reveals some interesting details.
Professor Mathias picked up a large pair of scissors and started to make cuts in the dead man’s clothes. When he had completed this task he was able to undress the man by pulling away strips of material.
“Well,” Mathias said, lifting one of the dead man’s arms, “What have we here?” Mathias’s breath condensed in the cold air as his rigid forefinger traced three dark stripes that disappeared beneath the dead man’s body. “Gentlemen, some assistance, please?”
Liebermann and Rheinhardt helped Mathias turn the corpse over. It was an awkward maneuver and the slap of flesh on the table was uncomfortably reminiscent of meat on a butcher’s chopping board. The dark stripes were now entirely visible. They were scabby and formed a V shape that converged at the base of the spine.
Mathias produced a magnifying glass. “He’s been flogged—and very recently. With a riding crop.”
Rheinhardt suggests torture, but Mathias thinks not, and Liebermann suggests the wounds might have been inflicted during sex. They also discover that the man has webbed toes, which gives Rheinhardt hope of a swift identification of the man.
Meanwhile, at a beer cellar called The Golden Bears, a diverse group of people gathers. The murder of Empress Elizabeth of Austria six years prior has inspired a new breed of revolutionary, and Emperor Franz Josef is the next target.
The nihilists were the easiest to identify—shoulder-length hair, bushy beards, red shirts, and knee boots. Their female companions styled their hair in a neat bob and concealed their shapeliness with loose, baggy dresses. Some of their number had taken to wearing blue-tinted spectacles and all of them smoked without pause, the glowing remnant of on Egyptian cigarette being used to light the next.
When one of this group is murdered, it sends Rheinhardt’s investigation into high gear—and into the world of anarchists and revolutionaries. When a very strange woman named Fraulein Feist becomes a person of interest, the danger for our intrepid investigators ramps up significantly. And just who is the mysterious Mephistopheles, and what is he planning? Liebermann and Rheinhardt must find out before it’s too late.
It isn’t all death and darkness, though; Liebermann has also taken the step of introducing his beautiful girlfriend, Amelia Lydgate—who is very much her own woman—to his family, causing a bit of friction on the personal front. His Jewish family isn’t so thrilled about the idea of him marrying a gentile, but he’s terribly in love with her and is determined to make it work. Luckily, Amelia, who is studying medicine, is more than prepared to spar with Liebermann’s large family.
The murders are—as always—intriguing, but Frank Tallis is a master at building atmosphere, and his Vienna is one of shadowy mystery and dark doings that seem strangely comfortable alongside glittering excess and sophistication. And, of course, it’s sometimes the most “sophisticated” folks that are up to no good. Tallis, who is a clinical psychologist, brings his considerable expertise to the fore in bringing Max Lieberman to vivid life. Seven books in and the complex relationship between family man Rheinhardt and the erudite young Liebermann has grown very organically, proving that true comradery can grow between two people from very different worlds.
This series hasn’t lost its punch, and although it’s usually a few years between books, the wait is more than worth it. Additionally, if you haven’t discovered his books written under FR Tallis—such as The Voices and The Sleep Room—I urge you to do so. You don’t have to start at the beginning of this superior series, but as each installment is a real gem, you’d be missing out. Either way, this series is a must read from one of the best historical writers in the business.
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