Murder and Mélange at Vienna’s Popular Kriminacht

Austrian and international authors packed Vienna’s coffeehouses and theatres for the annual literary orgy of crime fiction

Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen reads at the Gartenbaukino during Kriminacht 2012 | Ludwig Schedl

Author Daniel Woodrell (centre) at Café Landtmann with Austrian actor Adi Hirschel (l.) and moderator Sebastian Fasthuber, part of Kriminacht | Photo: DeSt

Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen reads at the Gartenbaukino during Kriminacht 2012 | Ludwig Schedl

The crime rate was definitely up on 18 September, as local and international writers of detective fiction moved in on Vienna’s coffeehouses, reading from their high-tension stories of murder and mayhem. This year’s Kriminacht hosted 63 book readings in 54 locations – such a wide panoply demands a serious bit of sleuthing to make what was a nearly impossible choice. Only one thing was certain: Nothing would be routine.

Three established international names were on hand for the mid-day press conference: Arne Dahl, Jussi Adler-Olsen and Daniel Woodrell, causing much excitement amongst devotees of the genre. Kriminacht was thrilled to host them.

“You don’t know yet,” cautioned Jussi Adler-Olsen, winner of the distinguished Gyldne Laurbær Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. “I know how to keep you awake at night!” The Dane also knew how to entertain the curious and teased out the odd laugh.


Daniel Woodrell: Still waters run deep

The gemütliche and down-to-earth American writer Daniel Woodrell seemed very low-key by contrast, the least accustomed to reporters and cameramen. Still waters apparently run deep. Interested especially in the international readings, I stuck with Woodrell, as my Swedish or Danish language skills are non-existant.

book reading

Author Daniel Woodrell (centre) at Café Landtmann with Austrian actor Adi Hirschel (l.) and moderator Sebastian Fasthuber, part of Kriminacht | Photo: DeSt

The Ring was shrouded in darkness as I made my way into the deep recesses of Café Landtmann, it’s blood-red upholstery and dark wood, murky in the dim light, providing a fitting venue for literary crimes and misdemeanours. It was almost impossible to get a seat at such short notice, but luck was on my side, and I found a place two tables away with a perfect view of the crime scene.

Woodrell, Austrian actor Adi Hirschal and moderator Sebastian Fasthuber occupied a small table on the side of the café, the pages of The Death of Sweet Mister illuminated through the green glass shade of a library lamp, lending additional charm to the 19th century café. Woodrell’s novels deal with the very private people in the isolated Missouri Ozarks, a place he grew up in and knows intimately.


A false sense of security

Reaching for his glasses, Woodrell opened the book and started to read: His unexpectedly thick Southern accent was nearly impenetrable at first, until (perhaps seeing the blank expressions on the faces of his listeners) he mellowed into something more even and assured. Hirschal then followed with the clear, expressive voice of a trained actor, if sometimes a bit croaky, twisting every swear word and insult of the German translation like a knife. Woodrell’s broad drawl, though, is perhaps the more sinister, lulling you into a false sense of security and masking his disconsolate words that appal all the more as the meaning finally sinks in.

Sweet Mister paints a depressing picture of 13-year-old Shug’s broken family life: abusive step-father, sexually explicit mother, barely contained incestuous urges that will bubble to the surface eventually. The haunting plot is delivered with startling urgency, violent words echo back and forth in one’s mind.

So those looking for the conventional “whodunnit” won’t discover it in Sweet Mister, and discussion about where to place Woodrell’s writing remains heated. He has abandoned the term “country noir”, and perhaps sparked more controversy than intended.

“I don’t feel necessarily comfortable in any world,” he said with a cheeky grin. “I don’t have this fetish of categorising and sub-categorising.” One must simply endure the bleak lives of his characters and hope for a sliver of honey-sweet justice without a label.

Woodrell needs to write at a swift pace. “It was good practice,” he admitted, having first started to write when he was 23 at university. But he also likes to deliver a fast and precise plot rather than a drawn-out, never-ending story, “like a punch, you know?”


The horror happens on the inside

Like a punch, indeed: His words hit you right in the gut and left a lingering pain. “I wish I could add that none of this happened,” declares protagonist Shug. But the sentiment rings hollow after the masterfully woven insights into a twisted boy’s psyche. Here the horror happens on the inside and isn’t something that can be solved with crime scene investigation. It sets your teeth on edge and lingers well into the night.

Across the city, Adler-Olsen addressed the crowd filling the Gartenbaukino, while others ventured into the clammy tunnels of the city sewers, made famous in The Third Man, armed with helmet torches and a sense of adventure. Down there, not even a steaming cup of coffee would be able to ward off the damp chill.

The game’s afoot!


The Death of Sweet Mister
by Daniel Woodrell
(Trans. Peter Torberg)
Plume (2002)
pp. 208

For a review of 2011’s Kriminacht event, see “Crime at the Kaffeehaus: a Mélange of Books and Authors” in Oct. 2011 TVR.

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