A DEATH IN VIENNA by Frank Tallis

Vienna Austria Skyline - Wrapped Canvas Photograph

(Early 20th century Viennese skyline)

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s trilogy, THE ALIENIST, THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS, and SURRENDER NEW YORK which focus on murder investigations of Dr. Laszlo Kreitzer, an early practitioner of psychoanalysis as a tool is solving violent crime you will enjoy the works of Frank Tallis.  Tallis, a clinical psychologist and author of over fifteen fiction and non-fiction titles has written A DEATH IN VIENNA, the first of his seven Max Lieberman novels.  Lieberman is a scientist who supports many of the innovative ideas put forth by Dr. Sigmund Freud and applies them when conducting investigations with his colleague, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt.

The novel begins with Detective Rheinhardt called to the scene of the death of a beautiful Viennese medium Charlotte Lowenstein.  Her body is found in a room that can only be locked from the inside, she is shot through the heart, but no gun is located.  Since the victim was a medium the possibility of something supernatural occurring is considered, but after Lieberman, the detective’s good friend is called that reasoning is rejected especially when one of Lowenstein’s clients is also found dead in a locked room beaten to death. 

File:Sigmund Freud LIFE.jpg

(Sigmund Freud)

As the novel evolves the reader is exposed to the ambiance of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century.  The characters, scenery, dialogue, and cultural representations all speak to Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.  There are a number of intrigues that take place at the same time.  Dr. Lieberman assists Detective Rheinhardt with cases but also must devote his time to his patients.  One in particular highlights the ideas of Dr. Freud. 

Miss Amelia Lydgate is a governess working for the Schelling family when she develops hysterical paralysis and a cough with no organic reasoning for these maladies in addition to a secondary personality.  Lieberman rejects the approach of a colleague, Dr. Wolfgang Gruner who applies electrotherapy in the hope of  achieving a cure.  Their interactions highlight the divergence of opinion regarding psychoanalysis in Vienna at the time and Tallis does an excellent job recreating the debate of Freud’s theories by reproducing realistic dialogue providing the reader with a sense of where the study of psychology existed at the time.

Other scenarios emerge as the investigation into Frau Lowenstein’s death proceeds.  The medium had a large circle of followers who were with her right before her demise.  There was a languid count, a luscious heiress, a businessman, a solid bank manager and his wife, a conman, and a seamstress.  Any of these people may have been responsible for the death, but there is little evidence linking any of them to the crime. The murder appears to be one of stagecraft accomplished through smoke and mirrors – for Lieberman it appears to be a crime of illusion.

Tallis does a wonderful job recreating activities among his characters that reflect the historical period.  A visit to museums and concerts highlighting the works of Gustav Mahler and Gustav Klimt.  The reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism in Vienna led by the likes of Karl Lueger.  The accusation and conviction of a Jew for ritual murder who supposedly used the blood of the victim for making matzoh.  Further the reader is witness to a Friday night sabbath dinner at the Lieberman’s with the entire family highlighting Jewish tradition, the use of Yiddish, and overall captures the Jewish experience at the time.

(Gustav Mahler. Taken in the loggia of the Court Opera House by Moriz Nahr – 1907)

Tallis integrates the murder of Karl Uberhorst, a former lover of Lowenstein (among many!) and someone who may have held many of the dead medium’s secrets.  There is a plethora of interesting characters apart from Lowenstein’s circle including Commissioner Brugel who is dissatisfied with the speed of solving the case.  Inspector Victor von Bulow, an arrogant know it all who is called to assist in the investigation.  Madame Yvette de Rougemont, a supposed medium who is really an actress, and Cosima von Rath, the fiancée of Hans Bruckmueller, a member of Lowenstein’s circle.

Tallis has constructed a careful whodunit. He guides the reader throughout from the crime scenes, the debate of the application of psychoanalysis in solving crimes, the use of traditional and newer police methodology, and the interaction between characters very nicely.  The murder mystery is well written with particular emphasis on Viennese society and culture and the story has become a mini-series on Public Television entitled “Vienna Blood.”  The story is fast paced combining science and traditional approaches to criminology and I look forward to reading other novels involving the duo of Lieberman and Rheinhardt.

View of Vienna in the sunrise, Austria Austria, Central Europe, Central Vienna, Europe, Vienna - Austria Vienna - Austria Stock Photo

(Vienna, 1902)


Watch: People Cling to U.S. Air Force Plane Leaving Kabul
(August, 2021, Afghans trying to flee Afghanistan with US withdrawal)

Of all the decisions made by President Biden during his first two years in office the most frequently criticized by both Democrats and Republicans was his decision to withdraw  American troops from Afghanistan.  Biden has wanted to end the American role in Afghanistan since his time as Vice-President thus the decision was not surprising.  After two decades of war Biden had enough of the corruption, duplicity, and the lack of will to fight on the part of various Afghan governments to defeat the Taliban.  It was not so much Biden’s decision to withdraw, but how it came about and how it was implemented resulting in negative repercussions for American foreign policy that has drawn so much criticism.

One of the first books to emerge since the end of American participation in Afghanistan is Elliot Ackerman’s THE FIFTH ACT: AMERICA’S END IN AFGHANISTAN.  The book is broken down into five acts, the last resulting in the final escape of an Afghan family.  Ackerman’s work is a combination of a meditation on war as a concept, a personal memoir, and his frustration with four presidential administrations.  Ackerman has authored five novels following his career as a US Marine where he did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.  After ending his time as a Marine officer, he joined the CIA and returned to Afghanistan as a paramilitary officer.  His military career ended over a decade ago, but events in Kabul in August, 2021 as the Taliban closed in on the Afghan capital he found himself drawn back into what certainly was the end of an American quagmire.


(About 640 Afghans and others fleeing Afghanistan crammed into a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane out of Kabul, August, 2021)

Ackerman’s narrative begins on a family vacation in Italy at the same time that thousands of Afghans who worked with American troops during the war as interpreters, spotters, and other capacities are trying to flee the country knowing full well that if they were captured by the Taliban their lives and the lives of their families would be in great danger.  Ackerman proceeds to structure the novel by alternating a description of his family vacation, returning to certain segments of his time in the war zone, trying to assist Afghanis trying to flee the Taliban by contacting numerous individuals he served with, and lastly, providing what appears to be his private meditation of Afghanistan and war in general.

The most interesting aspects of the book revolves around Ackerman’s thoughts concerning the definition of war, how one determines victory or defeat, the cost of recovering the bodies of American soldiers, the differences between targeted killing and assassination, and trying to determine if the American people and society should share a major part of the blame for how the war transpired and finally ended for the United States.

Ackerman’s willingness to assist in trying to save as many Afghans as possible is supported by his wife and he is able to compartmentalize his obligations to his family and what he believes is his obligation to save as many people as possible.  As the narrative evolves Ackerman’s commentary is perceptive and accurate.  His comparison of the negotiations that ended the war in Vietnam under President Nixon, and those by President Trump with the Taliban are dead on.  The negotiations led by Henry Kissinger that resulted in the 1973 Paris Accords cut out the South Vietnamese government and the final terms were presented as a fait accompli to President Nguyen Van Thieu.  Similarly, American negotiators treated Kabul in the same way.  The Doha Agreement signed on February 29, 2020 with the Taliban fatally delegitimized Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his central government.

The concept of a citizen army and that of a volunteer force is examined very carefully.  Ackerman correctly concludes that the American people, other than those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan had “little skin in the game.”  Both wars were financed through deficit spending and sparked varying degrees of disinterest in the course of the wars.  During Vietnam the draft and the increasing cost of the war greatly contributed to the anti-war movement.  In the case of the last twenty years there was no “war tax” or draft to galvanize the American people resulting in “a lack of interest” on their part or what some have referred to as “war fatigue.”

The author in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004.

(Elliot Ackerman, Fallujah, Iraq, 2004)

Ackerman’s account contains a number of warnings for the American people.  One of the most important is the role of the military in civil society.  Ackerman writes that currently the military remains one of the most trusted institutions in the United States and one of the few that the public sees as having “no overt political bias.”  However in the last few years that belief has been challenged by President Trump when he tried to use the military as a political vehicle to rally the support of what he perceived to be patriotic Americans.  His photo op using soldiers at Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020 is a classic example.  The George Floyd murder saw the use of National Guard troops to make a political point.  Repeated calls by Trump to use what he termed “his military” for his own personal benefit was extremely dangerous.  Up until now we have skirted this issue, but the increasing partisan nature of our domestic politics could some day result in a more dangerous version of January 6th.  By the election of 2020 more and more retired military have become talking heads and it seems that the politicalization of the military is approaching.  This is very dangerous especially when one party argues that an election was stolen and almost half the country believes that argument.  What I fear is when this politicalization seeps down into the ranks and soldiers are called on to deal with election protests the possible result of such a scenario is something I do not want to envision.

As the narrative evolves the author’s empathy and guilt dealing with the end of the war and the fears of the Afghan people of the Taliban is totally evident.  As he fielded phone calls, emails, and texts he is confounded as he tries to respond with strategies, employing his contacts, and doing whatever he can to help.  This is juxtaposed throughout the book with his own combat experiences during his service in the Marines.  The book is not a history of the final evacuation but it is more of a former soldier contemplating the meaning of the end for America’s fighting men and women.  He focuses on the “should’ve and could’ve” aspects of war pertaining to himself, the men and women he fought with, and the decision makers in Washington.  He concludes that we must question America’s judgement when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Overall, Ackerman’s work should provoke an extensive reevaluation of America’s approach to war – how we pay for it, what segment of society fights, and the impact of partisanship.  The book is well written and provides a clear picture of two decades of war, how these wars ended, when the United States should resort to the use of force, and what our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan mean for America’s future.  I highly recommend it to all – there are many lessons to be learned.


(August, 2021. Afghans trying to reach Kabul airport to escape the Taliban as US troops withdraw)


Abraham Lincoln

In many ways Jon Meacham is the conscience of America.  The Vanderbilt historian and author has a very optimistic view of the American people and his appearances on MSNBC and other programs is usually upbeat when it comes to the future of the United States.  This viewpoint is readily apparent in a number of his books, including THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS where he discusses turning points in American history and how we have overcome numerous issues including partisanship.  Meacham is a prolific author whose books include FRANKLIN AND WINSTON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF AN EPIC FRIENDSHIP, AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND THE MAKING OF THE NATION, AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE, and DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODDESSY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH.  All books are well written with a degree of empathy for his subjects which is the case with his latest effort, AND THERE WAS LIGHT: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND AMERICA’S STRUGGLE which tells the story of our 16th president from his birth on the Kentucky frontier to his leadership during the Civil War through his assassination.  For Meacham, Lincoln’s life illustrates the ways and means of politics in a democracy, the roots and durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to shape events.

Meacham’s Lincoln is a humane and empathetic individual who must overcome personal tragedy and his own demons.  The death of two children, a depressive personality, and a spouse who caused trouble repeatedly must be dealt with as he tries to maintain the union and reunify his country.  Lincoln did not shy away from complex decisions whether dealing with politics, military personnel, or wartime strategy.  He was a firm believer in Jeffersonian equality and the constitution.  He was not averse to making compromises to maintain the union and a democratic form of government.  The idea that the federal government could not end slavery in states where it existed but could prevent its expansion into new territories was deeply ingrained in him.  According to poet and editor James Russell Lowell who wrote in 1864, for Lincoln it was more convenient to say the least, to have a country left without a constitution, than a constitution without a country.”

1862. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand at Antietam.

(Lincoln at the battle of Antietam)

Meacham’s account of Lincoln’s treatment of slavery is heavily laden with theological arguments and experiences which Lincoln argued was his own enslavement by his overbearing father who forced him to labor and forgo education, to the exposure to reverends preaching against slavery during his boyhood.  Meacham develops anti and pro-slavery ideology throughout the narrative and concludes that Lincoln did not believe in racial equality, favored the colonization of slaves to areas outside the United States, but overall, he could not tolerate individuals being owned by another and having to labor for someone not of his choosing.

The narrative carefully recounts Lincoln’s evolution concerning the slave issue relying on his religious and political development.  Lincoln was a man of compromise in all areas, but not concerning the maintenance of the union.  Meacham reviews the most important debates, events, and movements of the period and offers a dissection of Lincoln’s thought processes and how he finally reached the conclusion in 1862 that after trying everything to appease the south and keep the states as one to announce the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Lincoln only served one term in Congress, but it was an important education.  He learned a great deal about slavery coming into contact with southern members of the House of Representatives, opposing racist legislation, and the need of compromise, not conquest in order to make meaningful change.  Lincoln repeatedly turned to the “Founders” for inspiration and if one examines his speeches it is a combination of religious belief and political pragmatism.  As Lincoln stated in 1861, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 

This is an image of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Davis.

(Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee)

According to historian Richard Carwardine, “the fatalist and activist were thus infused in Lincoln.”  He was a dichotomy.  He articulated his moral commitment against slavery and his willingness to leave a white dominated society intact.  For him racial prejudice among whites was at such a level that the practical course was to acknowledge and accommodate it.

There are countless interesting aspects of Lincoln’s life that Meacham introduces.  One of the most surprising is his obsession concerning his own birth – was he illegitimate?  Did policy decisions emanate from his own inferiority about his own birth that summoned temporal and divine help, as he tried to put the national family back together when his own family origin was in doubt? 

Meacham does an excellent job reviewing events leading to the Civil War, the course of the war, and the ultimate victory of the north which cost Lincoln his life.  The author concludes that in most aspects of his narrative race is the central cause of the conflict as even if he would free the slaves northern racists were on par with those in the south – the only difference was they did not want to enslave them, but they could not accept that they were equal.

AND THERE WAS LIGHT is not a traditional biography of our 16th president.  It is more a conversation with an eminent historian who examines the intellectual development of his subject while at the same time placing him in the context of the world he lived in and the difficult choices that he made.  Meacham offers an account that is worldly and spiritual, and carefully tailored to suit our conflict-ridden times.  Meacham alludes to the present with examples from the past.  A case in point is Vice President John Breckinridge’s courageous decision to carry out the electoral college faithfully in February 1861 as Mike Pence did in 2021.  Further Lincoln promised to accept the results of the 1864 election, even if he lost, Donald Trump and Kari Lake are you listening?  Lastly, Lincoln’s support for absentee voting for soldiers, unlike Trump’s call to outlaw the process.  Lincoln faced a White supremacists national minority chafing against Jeffersonian ideals which Lincoln was committed to.  With January 6th and further threats of violence Meacham tries to use Lincoln as an example of leadership in somewhat similar times. 

The book is thoroughly researched and highly readable written by a craftsman of the English language.  The book as are his other works is relevant for today as Meacham writes, “ A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.  For while Lincoln cannot be wrenched from the context of his particular times, his story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events.”

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