Death and the Maiden by Frank Tallis

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Death and the Maiden by Frank Tallis

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A fairly plodding detective tale set in Vienna in the last days of the Hapsburg empire. Overburdened with historical accuracy and musical explanation, the guileless detective and his sidekick are too star-struck to solve anything.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 384 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Century
ISBN: 978-1846053573

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Just to clear the confusion out of the way, this book has nothing to do with the novel of the same name by Gladys Mitchell. Both take their name from an early Schubert piece, in which Death entices the Maiden to leave the world of men. The maiden resists. It was a common enough theme at the time: the death of beauty.

The musical connection is more important in this book than in the Mitchell mystery story. The whole of Tallis' Viennese murder mystery is tied up in music.

The dead maiden, in this case, is not that much of a maiden. Ida Rosenkrantz was an operatic diva, with a powerful voice, beautiful presentation, and a way of manipulating people into seeing things her way. She had, to put it bluntly, been around a time or two. Mostly with older men, all of them powerful or rich or both. Now, however, she is dead. Found in her bedroom, meticulously laid out in the middle of a Persian rug in a way that suggests, contrary to any theories about the amount of laudanum in her system, that she probably did not take her own life.

The time: 1903. The place: Vienna. Franz Josef, the last of the Hapsburgs is hanging on to his empire by a thread. A revolutionary Mayor has control of Vienna, which is almost a state-within-a-state. Serbia is looking particularly restive. Mahler is Director of the Royal Opera and hell-bent on making enemies of his own. And one certain Herr Doktor Freud is pondering how to get both tenure as a professor and his ideas on sexuality into the public domain. He's shrewd enough to know that the latter is a threat to the former.

Given that we have a homicide, we need a detective. Step forward: Inspektor Rheinhart of the Vienna Security Office.

Given that we have a detective, we need a side-kick. Enter: Maxim Lieberman, psychiatrist, who for a junior doctor at the city hospital seems to have a remarkable amount of free time.

The formulaic construction continues through-out. Do not expect any great twists in this fairly plodding investigation.

A couple of easy suspects are announced early on as lovers (and therefore potential killers) of Rosenkrantz. Much is made of the general dissent in the Orchestra and Opera Company, but equally much is made of the fact that this is, in effect, situation normal. Only one further suspect emerges from this melee and they are pictured as too ineffectual for any but the laziest of readers not to cross them off the list within the first page of reasoning.

The story is padded out with an older mystery. A young composer, remembered now for only one (albeit brilliant) song, died tragically young in a mountain accident. Or was it an accident. There was gossip at the time, but you know how it is. Lieberman now thinks he has evidence.

Tallis has produced a meticulously researched novel. Unfortunately, it wears its learning heavily. The musical references are laboured. For one who has no interest in classical music, they were a pointless distraction and attempts at explaining them, rather than underlining my own ignorance simply served to rob them of the subtlety that might have rendered them teasingly enjoyable to those better educated than I.

Freud, likewise, had to be explained as if the average reader of modern fiction had never heard of him and did not understand the basics of his theories.

The architecture and interior design of the period are equally well painted – but in all detective fiction, such things are, as they are in life, mere window dressing. Of course the scene needs to be set, but we don't need the whole setting. Would a Detective Inspektor know a Louis XIV sofa if he was required to sit on one in anteroom? If he did, would he care? Of course, it is a mere token of opulence… but we are in the palace. The details have been earlier described, we know of its riches. This repetitive emphasis is unbalanced.

When it comes to characters, I would lament the insipid nature of every female in the book bar one, but for the fact that their male counterparts show no more verve. Let's simply say that the character that engaged me most was in the walk-on part that would probably show up in the dramatis personae as "the witch" (although in the text she is named).

All in all, I cannot recommend this. It warrants three stars because it isn't exactly badly written, but in a world with too many books and too little time, it is simply too slow but without subtlety, and the few red herrings are too fresh to raise the necessary stink.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of Deadly Communion by Frank Tallis.

Further reading suggestion: Despite what the Daily Mail might think there are far better British thriller writers out there: Rankin, the late Dibdin, and Grace Monroe would be reasonable places to start.

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