It is still happening – and it still hurts. Any internet search for ‘Austrian crime novels’ brings up an amazing number of titles. Unfortunately, they are all for ‘Australian crime novels’. Australia and Austria have both seen huge growth in their crime writing in the last two decades – the difference being that Australia has hit the international market big time, not least thanks to the power of English.
Austrian crime writing, on the other hand, has become stunning in scope: from literary mysteries to thoughtful, dark social analyses, from white-knuckle thrillers to atmospheric historic plots and comic rural romps littered with bodies, most of them drunk before exitus. Unfortunately, not many people know about them.
The roots of Austrian crime fiction are strongly literary. The foul deed acts as a catalyst for the plot, often with a strong psychological twist. Two early, famous examples are Ein Mord, den jeder begeht (1938, Every Man A Murderer) by Heimito von Doderer, author of the Austrian classic The Strudlhof Steps, and Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages (1923, Master of the Day of Judgement) by Leo Perutz. Jorge Luis Borges included the Perutz title in his collection of great crime novels of the 20th century.
After the Second World War, literary escapism concentrated on romance and love, preferably without a body count. Yet at the same time, Austria became synonymous with one of the best-known crime novels of the post-war era: The Third Man by Graham Greene showed a grey Vienna in all its depressing seediness as a centre for spies and criminals. And with that, Vienna’s role in crime fiction was set for decades to come: not as a creative hub itself, but as setting and location for others to write about crime. It is no wonder that to English-speaking audiences to this day, the criminal side of Vienna may be best known through the historic crime novels of Frank Tallis, author of Vienna Blood – to name but one.
Today, however, the Austrian crime-writing scene is teeming with life – if one can say that about novels in which death is essential. Authors like Wolf Haas, Marc Elsberg, Bernhard Aichner, Alex Beer or the child psychiatrist Paulus Hochgatterer, with his dark mysteries, have already made it onto the English-speaking market, with many more deserving to do so.
Simon Brenner and the Men of Words
The man who kicked off the new wave of Austrian crime fiction is Wolf Haas. When his clumsy detective Simon Brenner hit the scene in 1996 in Auferstehung der Toten (Resurrection, Melville House; 2014), he sounded completely different from the start, writing in a language that speaks directly to the reader, swallowing parts of his sentences and thriving on insinuations. ‘Murder does not interest me,’ says Wolf Haas about his books. Rather he focuses on weird and wonderful characters and their often-surreal humour. This strange and lively mixture has become Haas’s trademark. It has also made him the most translated Austrian crime novelist (Resurrection, The Bone Man, Come, Sweet Death! and Brenner and God are all available in English). In March 2022, after a break of eight years, Wolf Haas resurrected Brenner in Müll (‘Rubbish’, Hoffmann und Campe) as a worker on a Viennese rubbish dump, where, sure enough, body parts start turning up: Brenner at his very best. In the wake of Wolf Haas, three other Austrian writers entered the crime scene at the beginning of the millennium: Heinrich Steinfest, Stefan Slupetzky and Thomas Raab. They all showed some similarities: a strong focus on language, a lax attitude towards the criminal plot and very special protagonists. Heinrich Steinfest (born in Australia, as it happens) hit the jackpot with Markus Cheng, his one-armed private detective of Chinese descent, whose parents had emigrated to Vienna, because they loved to waltz. Steinfest, who is a prolific novelist, has won the Deutscher Krimipreis (German Crime-Writing Prize) for best crime novel a number of times. In 2022, he published his best Cheng-novel in a long time: Die Möbel des Teufels (‘The Devil’s Furniture’), centring on a memorable date for Austria, 1 August 1976, when Vienna’s Reichsbrücke (imperial bridge) collapsed and a few hours later Formula One star Niki Lauda suffered a near-fatal accident on the Nürburgring racecourse. Critics raved about the ‘wonderful story, realistic and at the same time absurd’.
The thrilling internationalists
Best known on the international scene, however, are Marc Elsberg and Bernhard Aichner, whose Woman of the Dead, about the revenge mission of the undertaker Brünhilde Blum, was translated into English by Anthea Bell and has been turned into a Netflix series. Aichner has written a number of books since, the most promising being a new series about the press photographer David Bronski who is obsessed with taking pictures of pain and death: Dunkelkammer (‘Darkroom’, 2021), Gegenlicht (‘Backlight’, 2021), and Brennweite (‘Focal Length’, 2022) – not yet in English).
Marc Elsberg’s best-known novel couldn’t be more topical as countries, cities and households everywhere endure energy crises. Elsberg has made ‘real science’ thrillers his trademark: gripping tales around events with the potential to wreck modern societies. He has perfected this successful formula in Zero (published in English as Code Zero in 2019 by Europa Editions) about an online activist fighting against a powerful shadowy data-collecting empire, or in Gier (published in 2020 as Greed by Black Swan) about the theory that wealth could be equally distributed according to a formula.
One of the bestselling Austrian crime writers has managed the feat of not even being well-known in Austria. Andreas Gruber has become a star in Germany and has only just recently made his mark on home-ground. Gruber’s books lean strongly towards serial killers, his most popular series featuring the Dutch profiler Maarten S. Sneijder who trains young police officers in Vienna, recruiting his best student Sabine Nemez to help him solve cases which are not for fainthearted readers.
Dangerous women on the rise
Female voices are becoming increasingly loud and clear in Austrian crime writing. The best known amongst them, Ursula Poznanski, began her writing life with novels that appeal to all ages: Erebos (Allen & Unwin, 2012) is the thrilling tale of a computer game which starts at a London school and soon dictates the lives of the youngsters playing it. The German-language original was written in 2010, prophetic in the era of TikTok! In 2019, Poznanski hit the crime market for grown-ups with her Vanitas series, about a female undercover agent, who hides from an Arab gang she infiltrated in Germany, working as a florist at Vienna’s central cemetery. Poznanski tells her award-winning and gripping tale of flight, fight and revenge in three parts, culminating in a showdown in Germany. With Stille blutet (‘Silence Bleeds’, Knaur, 2022), she has just started a new series around the young police officer Fina Plank in which people are informed of their imminent deaths.
Two other names to watch are Mareike Fallwickl and Rebecca Russ, by coincidence both from Salzburg. Fallwickl excited critics in 2022 with Die Wut, die bleibt (‘The Rage That Remains’) about life in a man’s world. Fallwickl’s female characters reach a point where they refuse to bow to man-made rules and start hitting back. Literally. Die Wut, die bleibt is a book with – and like – a punch. Rebecca Russ’s Mutterliebe (‘Motherly Love’, Aufbau Taschenbuch, 2022), on the other hand, could easily stand next to Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins on the bookshelf. The main character, Nora, implodes when her daughter Louisa vanishes after visiting her dad. Nora not only has to find Louisa, but also has to hide a secret which could destroy both their lives. And this is not the only surprise in this thrilling book of twists and turns.
The corpse at the Opera
One of the most popular sub-genres of crime fiction in Austria is historical. Bodies are forever turning up at the Opera, the Hotel Sacher or in a Fiaker carriage. Alex Beer’s novels, featuring the grumpy but brilliant detective inspector August Emmerich, serve up the finest Viennese crime currently on the market. Each of Beer’s books, set in the socially and economically tense 1920s, is well-researched. Beer’s first novel has been translated into English (The Second Rider, Europa Editions, 2018), and many more in the Emmerich-series are waiting to be discovered.
In 2022, Beer turned to Berlin as the setting for a new series about the master thief and dandy, Felix Blom. Set in 1878, Blom teams up with the resolute prostitute-turned-private eye Mathilde to find the person who had tried to ruin his life and was responsible for sending him to the infamous Moabit prison.
For those who like their crime a little cosier, there is Beate Maly, a writer who turns books out under many names. Maly has created a pair of investigative pensioners reminiscent of Miss Marple and her devoted sidekick Mr. Stringer, only in Maly’s cases they are the retired teacher Ernestine Kirsch and the former pharmacist Anton Böck. Also set between the two world wars, the sympathetic pair stumble over corpses in the Prater, Budapest, at the races and at the ice rink.
Bad Fucking and the King of Stinatz
The most successful branch of Austrian crime writing, however, has become Murder Most Regional. The author and director Kurt Palm put Austria on the map in 2010 with his crime novel Bad Fucking, which was turned into a film in 2013. ‘Bad’ in German is part of a place name meaning ‘spa’, but the sexual innuendo led to the real ‘Fucking’ renaming itself as ‘Fugging’ in 2020, after the village sign had been stolen countless times. Kurt Palm, whose speciality is absurd literary romps, surprised us in 2022 with a thoughtful and dark novel about a shooting rampage in a Vienna school, Der Hai im System (‘The Shark in the System’, Leykam Verlag).
The absolute king of rural crime is the comedian and actor, Thomas Stipsits, who sets his mysteries in the village of Stinatz, on the border with Hungary. Stipsits, whose family is from Stinatz, has dominated the market with his witty novels surrounding police inspector Sifkovits (‘Burgenland’s Columbo’), making benevolent fun of the villagers. In 2020 his books were ranked first and third on the Austrian bestseller chart. Herbert Dutzler, winner of the 2022 Austrian crime award, and also a big seller, has chosen the spectacular scenery of Altaussee for his mysteries surrounding the slightly sleepy Inspector Franz Gasperlmaier. Austrians, it seems, not only like to buy regional when it comes to food, but also like to read regional.
Many people look down on crime novels as a matter of principle. A mistake – as is any wholesale judgement. True, at its worst, crime fiction is formula trash, written in substandard language, making up in blood and gore what it lacks in sophistication and imagination. At its best, however, crime fiction is a thrilling ride through people’s innermost secrets, fears and hopes. Nothing focuses the mind like the will to survive. The same is true of the bigger picture: nowhere can you experience the strengths and weaknesses of a society more directly than when society is under pressure. How lucky English-language readers and publishers are, a whole new uncharted territory awaits your discovery! Welcome to the wild, weird and wonderful world of Austrian crime fiction!
By Doris Kraus
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