Deadly Communion, By Frank Tallis

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The Independent Culture

The writer Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist, but he is not often to be seen at conferences for Jungian therapists. He is also a writer of disturbing crime fiction set in Sigmund Freud's Vienna (a city where murder and twisted sexuality apparently ran riot), but he is not to be seen at crime fiction conventions.

You are most likely to run into Tallis at a London concert featuring the music of Gustav Mahler - each and every Mahler concert. The Viennese composer is as crucial a part of the Tallis mindset as Freud or Conan Doyle, and it's not hard to see why, given the complex and conflicted world of both the musician and Tallis's vivid novels.

Near the end of his life, Mahler consulted the father of psychiatry and related how an acrimonious family argument was indelibly linked in his mind with the sound of a hurdy-gurdy playing a Viennese popular song outside the window. Mahler ever after linked cheap popular music with a painfully tragic sense of life.

This trivial/serious dichotomy pervades Tallis's' novels, in which the young psychoanalyst Dr Max Liebermann helps Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt. The sober, authentic psychological detail is played against a vein of irony running through the books - not to mention the cannily commercial use of suspense and sensation.

Like Mahler (but, as Tallis would no doubt admit, in a far less ambitious fashion), the author brilliantly combines the popular with the serious in clever historical thrillers.

In Deadly Communion, the avenues of imperial Vienna are being stalked by a sexually deranged monster. Oskar Rheinhardt is making heavy weather of the case, and calls on his friend, Max Liebermann, to gain insights into the murderer's mind.

But Liebermann is distracted by one of his own patients who has seen a man in the street without a shadow, and is convinced that he had caught sight of his doppelgänger - a prelude to death.

In earlier books such as Mortal Mischief and Vienna Blood, Tallis has demonstrated a considerable gift for persuasive period dialogue. That gift seems more fitful here.

But Tallis's writing still has the richness of literary fiction. And, as ever, it is the measured accretion of detail and atmosphere that really sells Tallis's charged narrative, as the reader is taken into the terrifying psyche of a murderer.

In many ways, Deadly Communion is the most psychologically cohesive of the Max Liebermann outings, with the killer's motivation persuasively worked out within a historically accurate psychoanalytic framework. This may not lend anything to the considerable entertainment value of the novel, but it certainly doesn't do it any harm.