Historical Novels

In genteel Vienna, it's coffee with crime

Email|Print| Text size + By Anna Mundow
February 17, 2008

Vienna Blood
By Frank Tallis
Random House, 484 pp., paperback, $15

Winter in Madrid
By C. J. Sansom
Viking, 537 pp., $25.95

The Age of Shiva
By Manil Suri
Norton, 455 pp., $24.95

Here's a little test. The next time the conversation turns to books, say "I'm reading a very good historical novel" and observe the response. An indulgent smile? ("What a dimwit.") An impatient frown? ("Excuse me, we're discussing books here.") Despite the fact that the genre has recently been graced by the likes of Martin Amis, a quaint prejudice persists. Yet "serious" novelists who stoop to historical fiction often disappoint, while a writer such as Frank Tallis shows how irrelevant these distinctions are.

Tallis's main characters, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, an early advocate of scientific detection methods, and Dr. Max Liebermann, an expert in Freudian psychology, have been compared with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin, also with Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson. But these two friends are as original and convincing as the world that Tallis creates around them. Vienna of 1902, as it vividly materializes in "Vienna Blood," the second Rheinhardt-Liebermann novel, is a city "that attracted intrigue, conspiracy, and sedition. Visionaries and prophets found it irresistible."

Here Sigmund Freud presides over a psychoanalytic society that attracts members like Max Graf and Albert Adler, while sinister intellectuals and artists form Aryan fraternities dedicated to Teutonic dominion. Freemasons meet in underground temples, gentlemen fight lethal duels in secluded groves, and, as the novel opens, a psychopathic killer murders four prostitutes. A clinically precise yet starkly touching description of the mutilated bodies is followed by one of Dr. Liebermann examining "the remains of his breakfast: a few croissant flakes and a smear of plum jam." It is the jam that makes us queasy. So it should. Each time the killer strikes, the gore from a twilight realm of murderous fanaticism leaches further into the civilized world of coffeehouses, forcing our heroes to follow clues underground in every sense.

Tallis, who is also a clinical psychologist, cunningly folds psychoanalysis, early forensics, eugenics, music, and literature into a captivating suspense novel that also has its share of runic symbols, erotic swoons, and swordplay. All is held in perfect balance by the strength of complex characters and their relationships (we care just as much about Liebermann and Clara's engagement as we do about the murders) and the tactile intensity of even incidental descriptions. In the Palace Zoo, a tiger's "throat rattled. A deep, gurgling sound, like water pouring down a drain." By the Danube Canal, the frozen fog "curled around [Liebermann's] legs with feline curiosity."

By comparison, C. J. Sansom's "Winter in Madrid" is plainly written and fittingly so. Unlike Tallis, who portrays the grotesque forerunners of fascism, Sansom is depicting the ideology's squalid reality in Franco's Spain. Best known for "Dark Fire" and other entertaining novels in the Matthew Shardlake series, Sansom here powerfully conjures up a destitute Madrid that has been bled not only of people but also of color. To Harry Brett, reluctant spy for the British secret service, the city is as drab as wartime London and far murkier. His old school friend Sandy Forsyth is now a slick Madrid businessman with connections to Franco's regime, and Harry's mission is to rekindle the friendship and deliver Sandy - let's not say how or why - to his British handlers. Any tactic is fair game, in their view, if only Franco can be persuaded (or blackmailed) to enter the war against Germany.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that Sandy is living with Barbara Clare, an old flame of Harry's who has a secret mission of her own: to rescue the love of her life, socialist Bernie Piper, who disappeared after the Battle of Jarama. Sansom has taken a lot on, but the mechanism of the smoothly accelerating plot is refreshingly simple, and the motives of these undemonstrative British characters are satisfyingly opaque, even to themselves. "It had been the done thing at school to hide your feelings," Harry recalls as he prepares for his first meeting with Sandy; "you showed them only through a set mouth, a raised eyebrow. . . . Now he must learn to show nothing, or untrue things." Like "Vienna Blood," Sansom's novel ends with predictable but nonetheless riveting action and a tantalizing hint of what to expect in future installments.

"The Death of Vishnu," Manil Suri's acclaimed first novel, raised expectations for his second, "The Age of Shiva," and its setting - post-Independence India - is certainly well suited to Suri's graceful, ironic style. In Delhi, on Republic Day in 1955, for example, Meera, the heroine, recalls visiting the legendary Red Fort as a child and noticing "the Union Jack flapping atop a pole, its stern geometry of triangles and crosses clashing with the delicate intricacy of the minarets and arches." Certainties and complications jostle each other throughout the rambling novel, which seems to have motherhood, human and sacred, at its flimsy core. But the real disappointment is Suri's ear, which has apparently failed him. How else to explain Meera declaring that "the fury within me was so centering that it held me in a state of heightened clarity" and that "marriage . . . was all about physical responsibilities," or her use of terms like "interacted" and "male coworker"? This girl sounds as if she comes from a very different valley.

Anna Mundow is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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