Book Review: John Leake’s The Vienna Woods Killer

Author John Leake investigates the convict writer who became the darling of left wing intellectuals as another Jean Genet, while he was on a murderous rampage across Austria

Capturing ‘The Vienna Woods Killer’

It is early 1991, and the Viennese press is abuzz with news of a killer operating in the red light district. At the center of the media frenzy, investigating the prostitute homicides, is Jack Unterweger, one time con, now successful man of letters, a ‘bad boy made good’. Such is the freelance correspondent’s reputation; he lands a gig interviewing the police chief, Max Edelbacher, for ORF’s prestigious Journal Panorama. Little does Edelbacher know, however, that the slightly built journalist putting the questions is also the man behind the gruesome crimes.

John Leake, author of the recently published The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life, makes it clear, at the beginning of our interview, that this is the aspect of Unterweger’s tale that first captivated him: a respected author and correspondent, a celebrity in his own right who in his spare time not only committed enough murders to make him Austria’s most prolific serial killer of all time, but then chose to investigate – and publicise – his own crimes in the national press.

An American writer, Leake tells me that when he first came to the Austrian capital in the 1990s he noticed that “there wasn’t very much literature in English set in Vienna,” the exception being, Graham Greene’s The Third Man. That work is a personal favourite of his and “something of an inspiration,” with the parallel between its chief protagonist, the elusive Harry Lime, and his own anti-hero easy to spot: Both appealing conmen with a nefarious alter ego. Their alternative personas were facilitated by Vienna itself, Leake believes, which “having lost a sense of its own identity” with the loss of the Empire, is “the ideal setting for a guy to lead a double life.”

Jack Unterweger specialised in deflating preconceptions of what a man convicted of a brutal murder might be like. Implausibly, he was slightly built and boyish, affecting with his bow tie and herringbone jacket an almost scholarly appearance and “women found talking to such a physically unimposing killer fascinating”. Likewise, given the low expectations surrounding this uneducated country boy from Carinthia, he was able to wow an audience now and then with a literary reference or some quoted poetry.

“What then, is the identity of the second republic?” asks Leake rhetorically. The cultural and political life of Austria today “has been shaped by the 1968 crowd, “a generation of individualists born after the war, self-consciously distancing themselves from their parents and the Nazi past.”

Characterised by contempt for institutions of traditional society, one the hallmarks of these former student revolutionaries fascinated by lives lived on edges of mainstream society.

The role the “’68-ers” played in Jack Unterweger’s story is central to Leake’s book. For before Jack embarked on his career as a serial killer, he had already been in prison: In his youth he had murdered a girl and raped two others and at his conviction, he was supposed to spend the majority of his life behind bars. Yet after completing less than half of his sentence, this violent criminal was a free man.

How? As explained in The Vienna Woods Killer, this was partially thanks to a government rehabilitation programme and dodgy psychiatric reports. But the convict’s own voluminous jail-bird literature (he wrote screenplays and a novel, Fegefeuer (‘Purgatory’), while in confinement, not to mention hundreds of sycophantic letters to a variety of key players in the Austrian media and establishment) was also significant in speeding his release.

“Enthralled by the idea of an outsider,” some leading intellectuals saw Unterweger in the mold of  the famous French author Jean Genet,  a convicted criminal (“although never for murder”). Constantly in and out of prison, Genet had enlisted the support of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to petition President Charles de Gaulle for his release.

Certainly, these writers bear responsibility for generating support for the murderer’s release. Ernest Bournemann (author of The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, whose narrator, in an Agatha Christie style twist, commits the story’s crimes) cast himself as the Austrian Sartre, by writing a letter to the Justice Minister. “I don’t know Unterweger personally,” he wrote, “but I have read his work and therefore I believe he won’t commit another crime.” A prominent journalist raved about Unterweger’s talent after he had sent her a poem – “not having spotted it as the work of Hermann Hesse.”

This support persuaded Austrian government that Unterweger was “a prime candidate” to demonstrate the value of re-socialisation. “The irony (was) that the ‘poster boy’ of the reform programme was probably the worst criminal that this country has ever produced.”

Leake then gives a fascinating description of how the criminal justice system’s rules were subverted to ensure Unterweger’s release. The psychiatrist who conducted the final examination was young, inexperienced and given only 30 minutes with the prisoner. Dependent on patronage, “she had been directed to return a favourable evaluation,” his clean bill of mental health a fait accompli before she had conducted the interview. Furthermore, “no written evaluation was ever made, as required under Austrian law, nor was it submitted to a court – as was also customary.”

Leake has been a keen observer of Freunderlwirtschaft in Austria – “doing business among friends” – and sees plenty of evidence. “It was obvious that pressure was being exerted, rules weren’t followed, the evaluation that was given didn’t address Jack’s past – the whole thing was done in the most irregular way,” he says.

Furthermore, even while incarcerated, the lag had apparently been given special treatment and the prison’s governor lived in fear of this convicted killer firing off a maltreatment complaint to the Minister of Justice. More critically, there also seems to have been pressure to prevent his prosecution on new evidence, for the murder of a second girl during his younger years.

After his release Jack was allowed to violate his parole, including leaving Austria (for LA) and, absurdly, “driving away from Stein’s gates without a driving license.” Then, after the discovery of the first two dead prostitutes in the Viennese woods, the capital’s police dismissed as a crank the Salzburg Chief Inspector who, intimately acquainted with Jack’s earlier misdeeds, had phoned in to raise the alarm. And, finally, according to Leake, “Unterweger was apparently tipped off from deep within the law enforcement apparatus that the police had him put under surveillance.”

Given the scandal, the story remains difficult to reconstruct. Few are willing to open up, aside from “one journalist, who after the trial in 1994 wrote a ‘mea culpa’ for Profil. No one else ever said a word about it.”

The court psychiatrist reported that, in his half hour session, he had not discovered “any sign of a physical or mental illness. [Unterweger] had an apartment in Vienna, appeared to be earning money, appeared to be integrated; there didn’t seem to be a problem with his release.” But psychopathology isn’t a clearly definable illness, Leake says, but rather “a pattern of behavior, impossible to assess in such a short space of time.”

In his book, Leake crafts the tale of bringing the murderer to justice, describing Unterweger’s knack of distracting and misleading police during interview. Chameleonic and manipulative; Jack was adept at giving people exactly what they wanted to hear. Moreover, he “was only interested in women.” With most people, he tended to be rude and vulgar, but if he thought he could get something off you, he could turn on the charm.”

In his article “Angst im Rotlicht Milieux” (Fear in the Red Light district) for Falter, he argued (after having “figured out what kind of a publication it was, a trendy, leftwing, hipster newspaper”) that the prostitute murders were a consequence of society neglecting its vulnerable women. He could, he said, “set a hooker’s mind at rest with tales of how he knew her friends and various local cops” as he drove her out into the woods. Similarly, he deliberately encouraged the myth that his supposed abandonment by his mother was somehow responsible for his first murder. He told the renowned psychoanalyst Ernst Ferdern: Jack “understood very well what a convenient thing it was to blame his criminal youth on his mum.”

Obsessed with movies (“a great admirer of the German actor Klaus Kinsky”), the released Unterweger travelled to LA to try to flog his screenplay, the ominously titled Liebe bis zum Wahnsinn (Love to the Point of Madness), turning up unannounced on Austrian filmmaker Robert Dornhelm’s doorstep and expecting to convince the director to film his work.

Dornhelm refused. According to Leake, Unterweger “was unable to handle such disappointment;” That very night he murdered a prostitute not far from Dornhelm’s house. “Whenever Jack was enraged he took it out on a hooker.”

The Austrian authorities had taken a long time to get on Unterweger’s trail, the American cops were far speedier: Jack seemed unable to cast his spell on the other side of the Atlantic. While he was in LA, three prostitutes were killed.  The Californian police, familiar with the European’s record, immediately knew it was he. A plain-speaking LA law enforcement official put it perfectly: “You mean that having slaughtered a girl in the woods when he was a boy, that suddenly he is a normal person after having read a few books…”

When the Austrian justice system finally caught up with him, he was put on trial and convicted for the murder of nine prostitutes. Yet, one is left with the impression that this was a preventable tragedy. “There were laws and procedures in place to protect society from a dangerous criminal, they weren’t followed, and the people who suffered were street hookers.”

This is indeed a story that should never have had to be told, but in narrating this tale, John Leake does tell it remarkably well.


The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life
by John Leake
Available at the
The British Bookshop
1., Weihburggasse 24-26
(01) 512 1045

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