"Vienna Twilight," the fifth installment in Frank Tallis's superb mystery series, focuses on a serial killer obsessed with death; a degenerate artist, Herr Ludo Rainmayr, who paints emaciated young girls in the nude; and an agitated mental patient named Norbert Erstweiler. Dr. Max Liebermann is a psychiatrist and disciple of Sigmund Freud. He also unofficially assists his close friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt. Max and Oskar attend concerts, chat over meals, make music (Max plays the piano and Oskar sings in a rich baritone), drink brandy, smoke cigars, and track down felons. Max's knowledge of abnormal psychology helps him understand the subconscious forces that drive people to commit unspeakable acts. With the help of medical student and blood expert Amelia Lydgate, Oskar and Max search for a murderer who dispatches his victims in a most unusual manner.
Tallis places us in turn-of-the-century Vienna, a city of high culture, architectural grandeur, and provocative new ideas. Although the upper classes enjoyed lives of leisure and privilege, impoverished families were barely able to put food on the table. Syphilis was a "national disease," and moral boundaries were routinely pushed to their limits. Tallis creates a vivid picture of a decadent society whose members were "preoccupied with sex and death."
The characterizations, literate and lively dialogue, and forensic details are all first rate and, along with his serious themes, Tallis includes welcome passages of wit and humor. Max, as usual, is cerebral, detached, and insightful; Oskar is efficient, principled, and overly fond of rich pastries; and Amelia talks her way into the autopsy suite, where she bonds with the eccentric pathologist, Professor Mathias. "Vienna Twilight" is an absorbing, cleverly plotted, and elegantly written work of historical fiction.