Austria, Author, Book review, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery’ by John Leake

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 240 pages; 2012.

More than a decade ago I read a riveting true crime book by John Leake called The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life, about a murderer in jail who convinced Austria’s literary elite that he was rehabilitated — though he was anything but.

Until recently (when I recommended this book in a  6 Degrees of Separation post), it had never occurred to me to see what else this talented journalist might have written.

A quick perusal of the internet revealed that Leake had written another true crime book, also set in Austria, which he had self-published in 2012 because it was too niche for any mainstream publisher to pick up.

I purchased it on Kindle and found myself immersed in a strange and mysterious story about an enormous cover-up that seemed too unbelievable to be true.

Mystery in the alps

The book focuses on the mysterious disappearance in 1989 of a young Canadian man on holiday in Austria and the subsequent 20-year search his parents conducted in a bid to find out what happened to him.

Duncan MacPherson was a talented professional ice hockey player who had accepted a player-coaching role in Scotland. En route to his new employment, he visited Continental Europe to catch up with friends and do some solo travelling, but after being spotted snowboarding on a beginner slope he was never seen again.

His parents, Lynda and Bob, who were worried about the lack of communication, alerted authorities. Help was not particularly forthcoming. The pair flew to Europe to see what they could unearth themselves, but police and consular staff were unhelpful and dismissive.

When they eventually found Duncan’s car six weeks later at the Stubai Glacier, a popular ski resort near Innsbruck, it was difficult to understand why no one had noticed it; there were no other vehicles around and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Unfortunately, as Leake’s detailed book reveals, this was the first of many “clues” that were ignored by authorities, which included the ski resort, police, search-and-rescue staff and forensic specialists. Over the next 20 years, Duncan’s parents logged a never-ending succession of blunders, mistakes and concealments that suggested not everyone was being honest with them, which begged the question: what were people trying to hide?

Painstaking detail

Cold A Long Time covers the entire case in painstaking detail. In true detective style, Leake does an enormous amount of investigative research, interviews experts, local law enforcement and almost everyone he can who is connected with the case, to suggest what happened to Duncan and to explain why his disappearance was covered up — and by whom.

It is a compelling read. It’s shocking in places, not least the appalling ways in which the MacPhersons are treated by almost everyone they meet; their concerns dismissed, played down or simply ignored, their pursuit of justice thwarted at every turn. The one forensic doctor who befriends them and earns their trust turns out to have an agenda that did not have their best interests at heart.

If nothing else, this story, with all its twists and turns and its series of appalling mistakes and concealments, is testament to a mother’s love for her son and her enduring patience, tenacity and courage to uncover the truth about his disappearance. There is heartbreak and frustration and anger and disbelief on almost every page. It’s a book full of emotion and yet it’s written in a clear, detached voice, albeit one that is eloquent and compassionate, one that actually moved me to tears by the time I got to the end.

Cold A Long Time won a Bronze Medal in the True Crime category of the 2012 Independent Publisher Awards. It is an excellent read and one that will stay with me for a long time.

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How To Do Nothing’ to ‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeA pinch and a punch for the first of the month!

Yes, it’s August 1, which means if you are a horse, it’s time to celebrate your birthday! And if you are a book blogger, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a book meme that runs the first Saturday of every month that is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Here’s my contribution. For a bit of a change, I’ve decided to focus on narrative non-fiction titles only. As ever, click the pink hyperlinks to read my review of that book in full.

The starting point is:

‘How To Do Nothing’ by Jenny Odell (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but it sounds interesting. As much as I like to be productive, I have long argued that it’s important to do absolutely nothing as well… it helps recharge the batteries. But given I haven’t read the book, it’s a bit difficult to know what to link it to next, so I’ve simply gone by the title. Another non-fiction book with “nothing” in the title is…

‘Nothing to Envy’ by Barbara Demick (2010)

This is an award-winning non-fiction book about life in North Korea. Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six individual people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third-largest city, and does so in a totally compelling and gripping way. I’ve read many books about life in the world’s most secretive state but this is by far the best because it presents such a marvellous and eye-opening overview, not just of the people, but of its history and oppressive political system.

Another book about North Korea, written by a rare defector, is…

‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John) (2016)

This is an inspiring and harrowing true-life story about escaping North Korea’s brutal regime. Hyeonseo Lee came from a relatively comfortable family, but when her father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

This is a gripping story about resilience and reinventing yourself. Another book about someone who had to do that to survive is…

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver) (2014)

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is an orthopaedic surgeon based in Australia. He has pioneered techniques for treating soldiers who have lost limbs. But he was once a refugee. This book recounts his perilous journey from Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, which he fled to escape certain death, to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Indonesia, where he claimed asylum. He was later detained at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia for processing, but instead he was given a number and treated like a criminal, effectively kept behind bars for 10 months…

It’s a damning portrait of Australia’s immigration detention system. Another book that is a damning portrait is…

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani (2018)

Winner of Australia’s richest literary prize, this is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who was detained on Manus Island for more than four years. His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment.

Another book about refugees, but in this case from the perspective of trying to help them, is…

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby (2016)

This tells the true story of an optician, his wife and six of their friends who rescued 47 migrants off the coast of Sicily late in the summer of 2013. The migrants had been fleeing Africa and were on a seriously overcrowded boat that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 300 people drowned.

While the book sometimes labours under its own weight, it does put a very human face on those caught up in rescue efforts and shows the psychological impacts on them. It’s a story that shows two sides of the one coin: the worst of humanity, and the best of it, too.

Another non-fiction book that shows the best and worst of humanity is…

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake (2007)

This book recounts the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer, who was hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of a teenage girl, 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 Jack hoodwinked everyone into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a book about doing nothing, to a story about a writer who did something terrible, linked via life in North Korea, the story of a defector, escape from Iraq, detainment on Manus Island, and saving refugees in Italy.

Have you read any of these books? Care to share your own #6Degrees?

Austria, Author, Book review, Granta, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake

ViennaWoods

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.