Interview with Frank Tallis

Frank Tallis in the Freud Museum, London

Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist and an expert in obsessional states. He is the author of “A Death in Vienna,” “Vienna Blood,” “Fatal Lies” and “Vienna Secrets,” as well as seven non-fiction books on psychology and two previous novels, “Killing Time” and “Sensing Others.” He is the recipient of a writers’ award from the Arts Council England and of the New London Writers Award from the London Arts Board. A Death in Vienna was short-listed for the 2005 Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award. Tallis lives in London. (See also author’s website.)

I recently chose to review Frank Tallis’s 2010 novel, Vienna Twilight [Random House], because I regard him as a master of Viennese mysteries, in which I have a personal interest, and because his psycho-analytic detective novels, set in Vienna in the early nineteen hundreds, are possibly unique in the way they link the process of psychotherapy with criminal investigation; they are well-researched historical novels and at the same time a highly entertaining read. I am very grateful to Frank Tallis for agreeing to answer a few questions on his particular genre of crime fiction.

DJ.  So many things intrigue me about your “Liebermann papers” that I hardly know where to begin.  My own first interest in these novels was Vienna itself, so I will start there. The novels are rooted in the city of Vienna. You are, I take it, an Englishman. Did you start setting your novels in Vienna because you knew and liked the city and its language, or perhaps because as a student of psychology, you became interested in Freud, and for this reason delved into the life of the city?

FT.  The latter. I wanted to write a psychoanalytic detective series—which suggests Freud—and if you’re going to feature Freud, then the setting has to be Vienna. Fortunately, the city of Vienna and Freud’s time proved to be a gift for a novelist. Vienna in 1900 was an extremely exciting place. Revolutionary ideas were emerging in all areas of human endeavour: art, literature, philosophy, science, and most notably, psychiatry.

DJ.  The Max Liebermann novels are detective novels. You have called them “psychoanalytic detective novels,” and have suggested that they exploit parallels that exist between the process of psychotherapy and criminal investigation.  This is to me a source of endless fascination in your novels. Could you perhaps expand a bit on the idea here?

FT. Psychoanalysis and the detective novel are very similar. Clues are like symptoms, and the detective is like a psychoanalyst, attempting to find a root cause. It is very interesting that Freud himself recognised that there is a close relationship between psychoanalysis and police detection. He pointed this out in one of his lectures. It is also interesting that Freud was a great fan of detective fiction. One of his patients (known as The Wolfman) wrote a memoir and in it, he reveals that Freud was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Freud had a great deal of respect for this kind of writing. The Wolfman said that Freud valued it as much as the writings of Dostoevsky.

DJ.  Freud appears in the pages of your novels. I enjoy his conversations with Liebermann, and they are, as you demonstrate in your acknowledgements, very much based on the writings of Freud himself.  What would you say to those people who become irritated by what they see as too much text-book psychologizing, and not enough actual detection. I might suggest that they should perhaps read other novels, but you might have a better answer.

FT. If people don’t enjoy ‘psychological’ explanations of human behaviour, then they’re not going to enjoy my Liebermann books very much. I understand that; however, I tend to put a great deal of authentic psychology into my books for a simple reason. There are many crime books that are described as ‘psychological thrillers’—but they don’t have any psychology in them. I wanted my Liebermann books to be genuine ‘psychological thrillers,’ informed by psychological theories and ideas.

DJ.  In this blog, we have discussed “cozy mysteries.”  Your mysteries are anything but cozy.  In fact, you  incorporate into your narratives many  horrific details of crimes committed and of autopsies on the bodies of victims. And your novels are very successful. Can you make any comments on your own motives for including horrific details and on the motives of others who clearly have no problem reading them and perhaps even enjoy them?  This is a part of a larger kind of questioning that goes on in my own head about the motives that I have myself for reading murder mysteries of any kind.

FT.  Murder is horrific. Therefore—for me at least—it has to be described as something horrific. Horror is also emotionally engaging—something absolutely necessary if a reader is to suspend disbelief and enter an imaginary world. As for why we ‘enjoy’ reading horrific descriptions, I would suggest the following: children learn about ‘bad things’ in the world through listening to fairy stories – which can be pretty gruesome. This is healthy and children who have had exposure to fairy stories are better prepared for life’s adversities. As adults, we continue to come to terms with ‘bad things’ in much the same way. A narrative context makes the experience of horror ‘enjoyable’ – but I think something very healthy is going on. Fiction is a ‘safe place’ from which we can view the world and explore.

DJ.  I am very interested in the language of your novels.  In my opinion, not only do you, through your language alone, conjure up brilliantly the atmosphere of an earlier time, but, without Germanizing your English, you manage to make us believe that your characters are speaking German. Can you make any comments on how you did this?

FT.  I think it’s less about the detail of the writing and more about the context. I try to create an authentic Germanic atmosphere – so naturally, this creates an illusion of authenticity with respect to the speech of my characters.

UK Title of Vienna Secrets

DJ.  In some of your Vienna novels, you deal much more directly with the history and politics of Vienna than you do in Vienna Twilight. The crucial topic of anti-semitism, for example, is very much in the foreground in your Vienna Secrets, or “Darkness Rising,” as it is called in the UK.  Obviously it is not a good idea to overload a novel with lectures on history, but there are times when too much shorthand may be dangerous.  I had some problems, for example, with the way, towards the end of Vienna Twilight, you connected the theme of dying in an ecstasy of love (Liebestod) with the central theme/crime of killing in an ecstasy of love, and pointed forward to the terrible future of the Viennese with the line, “We Viennese, what will become of us?”  Perhaps you could say a word about the complicated role of historical hindsight in conjuring up a past era in a fictional setting.

FT.  Historical hindsight completely colours the reading of a historical novel. In a way, it would be pointless writing a historical novel if – as an author – you weren’t going to make use of it. Sometimes, hindsight does lead to crude and simple connections being made. However, I’m a novelist and not a historian. Subtle arguments and grey areas lack drama. A simple statement – albeit a crude one – seems to work better for me in a fictional context.

DJ.   A  practical question: I have read your comments elsewhere about  “interesting developments that might revolutionize publishing.”  E-books, you have suggested, have the potential to shift the power structure of publishing and there may perhaps be more opportunities for new writers in the future. I think readers of this blog, many of whom may be involved in self-publishing, would like to hear more on this topic from a well-published author, such as you certainly are.

FT. Children will always want to hear bed-time stories. People will always want to read books. Changing how books are made and distributed will not lead to the end of civilization as we know it. At present, British publishers and authors are extremely pessimistic about the future of the industry on account of E-readers. Well, maybe the industry will have to change—or  maybe the industry in its present form will disappear altogether—but books are here to stay. I am not unduly worried by technological change, because I firmly believe that basics are just the same. Story tellers make up stories—and people who want to read them will part with money for the pleasure.


DJ.   I am looking forward to reading Death and the Maiden, the next Liebermann book, as soon as it is readily available in the U.S.   I am among your many readers who never tire of the Rheinhardt/Liebermann detecting duo. I am not among those who look for character-development, and for, e.g., some fulfillment in the Liebermann/Lydgate relationship.  Is it too intrusive to ask whether you intend to go on with the series, more or less in its present form?  I certainly hope so!

FT.   I am worried that if I write many more Liebermann books they will become too repetitive—even for those who like familiar characters and situations. Therefore, I intend to give Max Liebermann a rest for a while and to write some ‘supernatural’ novels as F.R.Tallis (just so that readers know that these new books are something different). The first of these has been completed and is set in the medical world of late 19th century Paris. It will be published in the UK next year.

Many thanks to Frank Tallis for his remarks. I will miss Liebermann and Rheinhardt, but I certainly look forward to the new novels of F.R.Tallis.   The switch from Vienna to Paris is something I do not want to miss. And in the meantime, many of us in the U.S. still have Death and the Maiden to look forward to!


About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
This entry was posted in historical fiction, psychoanalytic detective novels, Vienna mysteries and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s