Layers of deceit complicate a murder probe at a Viennese military school.
In the winter of 1902, police inspector Oskar Rheinhardt is called away from a night of ballroom dancing to investigate an unusual death at Saint Florian’s, an exclusive boys’ academy. The victim is mild-mannered student Thomas Zelenka, 15. Absent any obvious signs of violent death, the preliminary conclusion excludes foul play. But Rheinhardt—assisted again by his close friend, brilliant psychotherapist Max Liebermann (Vienna Blood, 2008, etc.)—is suspicious of strange scratches on the adolescent’s chest and armpits. Neither headmaster Eichmann nor the teaching staff go out of their way to cooperate, and math teacher Herr Sommer, rumored to be Zelenka’s confidant, suffers a fall that conveniently delays an interview. On the other hand, Frau Becker, wife of the assistant headmaster, eventually discloses her close relationship with the boy, and the author reveals that St. Florian’s harbors a sadistic cult led by swaggering student Wolf. Rheinhardt must tread carefully in questioning Wolf, the nephew of a police commissioner already leery of the inspector’s progressive methods. Meanwhile, a torrid affair with exotic Hungarian musician Trezska Novak brings Liebermann to the brink of personal destruction via a budding addiction to absinthe.
Tallis’ elegant prose aptly evokes the period. He explores his protagonists’ depths and again offers a strong flavor of contemporary arts, science and social history. On balance, an absorbing historical novel first and a mystery second.