I think of my books as Trojan horses,” says Frank Tallis. “They are detective novels, and they are meant to be entertainment — but I like to drop some nuggets in which ought to leave the reader feeling enriched.”
Indeed, so enriching are Tallis’s books that reading them is almost like taking a university refresher course — on turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna. The four titles he has so far produced, forming the crime series, The Liebermann Papers, relate the adventures of Max Liebermann, a young Jewish psychologist, and his pastry-loving detective friend.
Of Liebermann’s encounters with the father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Tallis cheerfully boasts that he has researched “down to the type of ashtray there would have been on the table”. The books provide a window on the worlds of psychiatry, music, and bizarre, closed-door societies which were almost certainly the seedbeds for Nazi ideology. Fascinatingly, given Tallis’s Italian Catholic background, they depict an era and a place in which, for a brief generation, Jewish culture flourished side by side with vicious antisemitism.
Tallis, on the verge of retiring from his successful practice as a clinical psychologist in order to devote himself to writing, says it was “hugely important” for Liebermann to be Jewish. “We enter this world through Freud, who in effect was the father of my profession. Jewish identity was very closely related to early psychology… Freud worried that it was almost too closely associated.”
Freud, claims Tallis, was a frustrated Viennese stand-up. “He loved Jewish jokes and even wrote a book about them. I’ve tried to use some of his jokes in the novels, although I’ve had to bring some of them up to date. I always think that the person Freud was most like was Groucho Marx — they both loved jokes and, of course, cigars.”
But in Freud’s Vienna, says Tallis, “one could argue that the roots of the Holocaust could be traced.” One figure who features in the novels, and from whom Hitler definitely drew inspiration, was the writer Guido von List, a proponent of racial purity and an earlier adopter of the swastika symbol. He and his supporters have long been regarded as a bit of a joke, says Tallis, but he believes that they helped to develop Hitler’s thinking.
Max Liebermann, who with his foodie friend, Detective Inspector Rheinhardt, solves crimes in the novels through the extensive use of psychology, is an extremely assimilated Viennese Jew. “Jews like Max saw themselves as German; German is his language, he loves German music… I think he is faintly embarrassed by the appearance of eastern, more religious Jews, in the city… as we now know, that was a tragic complacency.”
In one generation, says Tallis, “all the best doctors in Vienna were Jews, Jews were involved in the media, Jews like Gustav Mahler ran the Opera House… all the great cultural institutions.
On the other hand, the city fathers “were ready to set up a special police force to monitor Jews at particular times of year when they would be most likely to be enacting ‘ritual slaughter’. In other words, the blood libel.”
In his newest outing, Darkness Rising, Tallis’s young protagonist gets a wake-up call about his Jewish identity, which has a resonance for which he did not bargain. En route we get an engaging dip into the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria, a learned discussion about the Golem of Prague, and endless, mouthwatering descriptions of Viennese delicacies.
So taken is the BBC with Tallis’s series that it has bought the development option for a pilot of the first novel, Mortal Mischief, and is well into the third draft of the script. Then, says Tallis, “we’ll see the first Jewish detective on TV.”
So, has Tallis ever thought of ‘crossing over’ from Catholicism? He replies enigmatically but warmly: “It is [Luria’s] idea of a collaborative relationship with the Deity, that the universe is ill and must be healed by virtuous acts, which I find very appealing.” Were it not for the giant Christmas tree in the corner of the room, any rabbi would sign up Frank Tallis with alacrity.