Written by Bernhard Aichner, translated by Anthea Bell — Placing the reader in a moral dilemma by asking them to empathise with a transgressive protagonist is something crime fiction has always done particularly well. As readers, we are asked to empathise with every type of criminal, from small time grifters to murderers, sociopaths and even serial killers. Now Austrian author Bernhard Aichner has added his character, widow and mortician Brunhilde Blum, to a list stretching from Jim Thompson’s sheriff Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me) to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter.
Blum is only just an adult when she kills her first victims – her adoptive parents. After years of psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of her parents, our anti-heroine has hit upon exactly the right way to exact revenge and better yet, make the whole thing appear to be a tragic accident. The method of killing is both ingenious and gruesome, it happens to be one of the best written scenes in the book and I won’t spoil it by revealing exactly what happens.
Fast forward eight years and Blum has married the policeman who discovered her dead parents. She and Mark live in wedded bliss with their two children and Mark’s elderly father, Karl. Mark still works for the police and Blum is running her family’s undertaking business. Their happiness is shattered when Mark is killed in what appears to be a tragic hit and run accident after leaving for work.
Massimo, Mark’s partner has promised that the killer will be quickly caught but the police make no progress. Paralysed by grief, Blum feels caught in a nightmare from which she can’t escape. In an attempt to feel closer to Mark, to keep part of him with her, she explores his mobile phone. On it, she finds serial recordings of Mark interviewing a girl called Dunya. Dunya is an illegal immigrant who was smuggled into Austria several years ago and worked at a hotel. Life was tough, but better than it had been back home.
But then Dunya was abducted, along with two co-workers, and held in a basement by five masked men who they came to know as the photographer, the priest, the huntsman, the cook, and the clown. For five years they were subjected to appalling physical and sexual abuse and humiliation before luck presented Dunya with a chance to escape. Her story was not believed by the police and she was forced into an asylum rather than helped. Mark came to believe that an awful miscarriage of justice had occurred and sought out Dunya to carry out an unofficial investigation.
Blum decides to carry on Mark’s work in tribute to him and begins searching for Dunya. The two women team up and the investigation leads them to the photographer who tormented Dunya. Blum accidently kills him before she has a chance to question him but his death seems appropriate to her. They begin to seek out his accomplices to dispense further justice, but their campaign risks bringing both of them to the attention of the killers.
Woman of the Dead has been extremely popular on the continent and it’s not hard to see why. There is a wicked and thrilling high concept to the story, lots of action, and a sexy and dangerous female protagonist. However it is not without problems. Perhaps something has been lost in translation but the writing is frequently flat and workman-like rather than inspired. There are problems with the plotting too, as on several occasions Aichner relies on happenstance to move the narrative forward in a way that just isn’t believable. For instance, Blum has no leads to help her find Dunya, but recognises her voice when she stands behind her in a supermarket queue.
Woman of the Dead, the first of a trilogy, is enough of a propulsive thriller to find an audience, most probably with people looking for a book to read by the pool, but serious crime fiction lovers might feel this kind of story has been done before and done better.
Woman of the Dead is released on 9 April. To read about more crime fiction translated from German click here.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
CFL Rating: 3 Stars