Darkness Rising, By Frank Tallis

A Freudian PI returns in this historical thriller

The various elements that come together in the latest outing of Frank Tallis's psychoanalyst detective, Dr Max Liebermann, couldn't be more of the moment. Though it is set in a lovingly re-created Vienna of 1903 – Freud himself has a cameo – Darkness Rising weaves together the odd lifestyles of followers of the Kabbalah, the rise of anti-Semitism, its exploitation by ambitious politicians of the Right, and the clash between religion and science.

Liebermann is drawn by his loyal policeman friend, Oskar Rheinhardt, into an investigation of the murder and ritual decapitation of prominent anti-Semites in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is his familiarity with the newly-emerging insights offered by psychoanalysis that the authorities want to tap – similar to the way that Sue Johnston's Grace Foley assists Trevor Eve's DCI Boyd in the BBC's Waking the Dead.

His involvement with the murders also carries the very modern, secular Liebermann back into his own Jewish ancestry, and in particular to the legend, attached to an ancient synagogue in Prague, of a golem, a creature of supernatural powers who protected the Jewish ghetto from those who would attack it. Could such a monster be carrying out the Vienna murders? The superstitions of Liebermann's past come hard up against his scientific training as he entertains the possibility.

It is one of a series of juxtapositions that give this thriller some intellectual backbone. Tallis – a Harley Street psychologist and author of textbooks on the history of psychotherapy – punctuates the action, slightly clumsily, with Liebermann's exploration, in his diary, or in his head, of his own dreams and desires, notably for a cold, young Englishwoman who is one of his patients. The internal becomes external when Liebermann is then placed in a series of contrasting situations, all of which touch on different aspects of his personality. There are the gatherings he attends where devotees sit at Freud's feet to lap up his wisdom; the Jewish fraternity meetings he goes to with his traditional father; and the gatherings of radical young feminists determined to tackle poverty and (in another contemporary echo) the injustices visited on migrant sex workers.

The danger is that Liebermann becomes little more than an observer of his own varied life. Tallis's way of avoiding this is to put his hero under a real and imminent threat to his livelihood and ultimately his life – as a result of an incident at the hospital where he works, when he refuses permission for a Catholic priest to administer the last rites to a young nobleman dying from syphilis. It creates another stand-off – between medical ethics and religious principles.

If it's all sounding a bit too obvious in its construction, then that's because it is. Too many of the set pieces seem tailored to the message of the story, while contributing little to the pace required of a detective novel. It will be a challenge for the BBC team currently working on bringing Liebermann to the small screen. Thrillers can, of course, also be novels of ideas. Tallis, though, sets you thinking so much that you stop caring about whodunnit.

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