Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 347 pages; 2007.
Truth is stranger than fiction, and no more so than in the case of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer in 1976, Jack developed a flair for writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. His work was so well received he became the darling of the literary elite who campaigned, successfully, for his early release in 1990.
But despite his apparent reform, everything was not quite as it seemed. When four prostitutes disappeared from Vienna’s red light district in the first year of Jack’s release he was one of the first to write about the crimes. He ingratiated himself with the local police chief and interviewed many of the city’s street workers for articles that were published in the press.
Capitalising on new found celebrity, Jack then went to California to research a magazine article about crime in LA. He accompanied police on their patrols of the city’s red light districts. During the time of his visit three prostitutes were brutally murdered. Their deaths, in which they had been beaten, tied up and strangled, bore striking resemblances to the deaths of the Viennese prostitutes.
This book by American journalist John Leake traces Jack’s life and the painstaking lengths that police on two continents undertook to charge him with the murder of 11 women. It is an absolutely fascinating story about one man’s ability to hoodwink society into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer. What emerges is a portrait of a sociopath who was so careful and clever at carrying out these despicable crimes that it took police many years of hard work to catch him.
The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life is creepy and spine-chilling in places, with so many twists and turns in the narrative that it seems almost too unreal, too fantastical to be true, but Leake never resorts to sensationalism or cheap literary tricks. The tone of this thoroughly researched book (Leake had privileged access to Jack’s diaries and interviewed all the major players) is restrained but never dull. It’s a well plotted, cleverly crafted investigative piece of non-fiction that had me enthralled from the first page to the satisfying — and wholly unexpected — conclusion on the last.