Hunt the thimble

David Cohen watches Vienna Blood on BBC2, based on the book by psychologist Frank Tallis.

In The 7 Percent Solution, author Nicholas Meyer teamed Freud up with Sherlock Holmes to tackle the detective’s cocaine addiction and, along the way, prevent a great European war. The BBC series Vienna Blood does not feature Freud but his influence is clear. Max Liebermann is a young neurologist in 1900 Vienna who finds himself working with one of the city’s detectives on a number of murders. They are not like Holmes and Watson – neither of them would deserve Holmes’ famous put down ‘Elementary my dear Watson’. They come from very different places. Liebermann is the son of wealthy Jew, while Oskar Rheinhardt is a career policeman who lost his daughter and tries hard not to be overwhelmed with grief.

Both men face professional problems. Oskar’s superiors are wary of the fact that he is dogged for the truth, while Liebermann’s professor tries to trip him up all the time because Liebermann thinks Freud has much to offer.

In one episode they investigate the death of a young man at St Florian’s, a military academy. Max’s nephew is sent there, runs away and breaks down, becoming mute for a while. When Max goes to St Florian’s to collect his nephew’s belongings, he takes Oscar with him. They are met with threats and hostility. Like many such institutions its inmates make some weaker boys endure cruel rituals (in this case involving branding their palms).

The series is sumptuous, though The Times critic objected to the hats. The pace is much slower than most television crime but I got a good sense of period Vienna.

Frank Tallis, the author of the books on which the series is based, has said he does not see his work as a novelist as being that different to his work as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. ‘I often feel when I write fiction that I am just doing psychology in another way because there are such massive parallels between my clinical work and the business of solving crime.’

I am writing a book on how Freud influenced writers like Agatha Christie, and so I understand his views. The detective and the therapist are both trying to solve problems – against the will of the criminal and the resistances of the patient/client.

Tallis has said patients often do not have the solution available to them – it is in the unconscious. Freud described therapy as a game of hunt the thimble, according to the poet Hilda Doolittle, who had a number of sessions with him. Tallis argues the therapist has to follow clues and, instead of finding a serial killer at the end of that process, you find a repressed memory and that is part of – or can be the whole – solution.

An excellent series with, for me, great hats.

- Watch the programme now.

- Hear from Frank Tallis on writing and psychotherapy, his ‘One on One’ and on Freud.

- David Cohen on Freud and the royals 

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