“[An] elegant historical mystery . . . stylishly presented and intelligently resolved.”¶
–The New York Times Book Review¶
“[A Death in Vienna is] a winner for its smart and flavorsome fin-de-siècle portrait of the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and for introducing Max Liebermann, a young physician who is feverish with the possibilities of the new science of psychoanalysis.” –The Washington Post¶
“Frank Tallis knows what he’s writing about in this excellent mystery. . . . His writing and feel for the period are top class.”¶
–The Times (London)
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The God of Storms
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
The streetcar bell sounded, rousing Liebermann from his reverie
and dispersing a group of horse-drawn carriages on the lines.
As the streetcar rolled forward, 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
The streetcar 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
toward his destination.
Even though lunch had already been served, The Imperial was
seething with activity. Waiters, with silver trays held high, were
dodging one another 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 recognized 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 Wiener 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,
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,
“Ach! 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, guglhupf, 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
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 favored by
“So—what do you think? A good idea?” asked Mendel.
“Well, if the existing department store is profitable, that sounds
“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
“Father, does it matter what I think?”
Mendel sighed. “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 mustache and beard were almost entirely gray. He received a
warm welcome from the head waiter, who helped him to take his coat
off. He was immaculately dressed in pin-striped trousers, a widelapeled
jacket, and a “showy” vest. 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?”
Liebermann turned. “I’m sorry?”
“Dr. 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.”
Mendel scowled. “B’nai B’rith.”
“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
“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 toward Mendel’s empty
“Yes, why not? A mélange, and another schwarzer for my son.”
Mendel looked enviously at his son’s gâteau, 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. “Pintsch told me I must lose weight.”
“Well, you won’t lose weight eating topfenstrudel.”
Mendel shrugged and took a mouthful of pastry but stopped chew-
ing when a loud thunderclap shook the building. “It’s going to be a bad
one,” said Mendel, nodding toward 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
Mendel wiped his mouth with a napkin and leaned forward.
“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.)