Here, from Wolff (a first novel, The Boys and Their Baby, p. 159), a somewhat torpid, frequently strained, and occasionally repetitious accounting of four criminal cases that rocked fin-de-siÃ¨cle Vienna--and that the author claims first brought the problem of child abuse and/or child murder to public attention. The revelations that followed the cases temporarily shattered middle-class illusions about the sanctity of Victorian family life and of the inevitability of ""mother love."" According to Wolff, however, these disturbing insights were quickly rehidden, remaining largely unexamined until the publication of an article, ""The Battered-Child Syndrome,"" in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1962. The author tries valiantly to imbue his thesis with universality. He discusses Freud, whose The Interpretation of Dreams was just being published at the time, and who, although exposing the antagonisms between parents and children, apparently took no interest in the Vienna cases. Wolff offers no explanation for Freud's lack of curiosity. Slightly strained parallels are also drawn between the reporting on one of the cases and the rabble-rousing style of Mein Kampf. Again, the matter remains peripheral to the matter at hand, and the relationship tenuous at best. While Wolff finds in the attitudes of the Viennese middle class a reluctance to face the possibility of child abuse, especially by a mother, at least one recent case indicates that the ""mother love"" platitude is still alive in America (When, in 1983, Diane Downs was accused by Oregon authorities of killing one of her three children and attempting to kill the other two, the woman very nearly was acquitted because popular opinion held that no mother would kill her own children.) By attempting to prove too much in his depiction of these admittedly shocking crimes, Wolff has come up with a work that seems contrived and unconvincing in its overambition.