TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

American and Austrian Literature and Film: Influences, Interactions and Intersections
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Donald G. Daviau (University of California at Riverside)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Wolf Haas’s Simon Brenner Novels:

Austrian Adaptations and Transformations of the American Detective Story

Helga Schreckenberger [BIO]

The paper examines the influence of the American detective story, in particular, the detective story of the “hard boiled school” á la Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett on Wolf Haas’s enormously successful series of detective stories.  Haas’ protagonist, private-eye Simon Brenner, shows strong similarities to the lonely hero of the hard-boiled novel. Structurally, Haas also follows the model of the hard-boiled thriller. In contrast to the analytical detective story which emphasizes the power of logic and deduction, Brenner’s method of investigation involve him deeply into the criminal activities suggesting that crime is not the exception in society but rather the rule. The conjunctive relationship between crime and crime scene also emphasizes the novels’ critical agenda, a satirical criticism of Austrian society.
Die Arbeit untersucht den Einfluss des amerikanischen Thrillers der sogenannten “hard-boiled school” á la Raymond Chandler und Dashiell Hammett auf Wolf Haas’ erfolgreiche sechsbändige Serie von Kriminalromanen um den Privatdetektiv Simon Brenner. Der Einfluss zeigt sich sowohl in der Zeichnung der Hauptfigur, die in Vielem dem einsamen Helden der “hard-boiled school” gleicht, als auch in der handlungsbetonten Strukturierung der Romane. Im Gegensatz zu dem klassischen analytischen Roman, der bei der Ermittlung auf Logik und Kombinationsgabe setzt, wird Brenner bei seinen Ermittlungen immer wieder  in das kriminelle Geschehen verwickelt. Kriminalität ist somit nicht eine Randerscheinung der Gesellschaft, sondern erweist sich in ihr tief verankert. Diese Kritik wird durch die kompromittierende Verbindung von Tatort und Verbrechen unterstrichen. Damit gelingt es Haas meisterhaft, die strukturellen und thematischen Komponenten des Thrillers für seine satirische Kritik an Österreich einzusetzen.


In the last decade, detective stories have gained an increased popularity among young Austrian writers such as Paulus Hochgatterer, Thomas Glavinic, Wolf Haas, Alfred Komarek, Lisa Lercher, Stefan Slupetzky, or Heinrich Steinfest. In contrast to the 1960s and 1970s where authors like Peter Handke, Gerhard Roth and Peter Rosei, deconstructed the genre or made it the object of literary and linguistic experiments, the authors of recent detective stories have stayed true to the traditional structure and conventional narrative style of the genre. Especially the detective story of the “hard boiled school” à la Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett has emerged as literary model for recent publications such a Wolf Haas’s enormously successful series of detective novels featuring private-eye Simon Brenner.(1)

This paper will analyze Haas’s adaptation of the American detective story as well as his deviations from his literary model. It will be shown that while adhering to the basic conventions of the detective genre, the Brenner novels do not fit neatly in any of the subgenres of detective fiction, neither the classical analytical novel nor the hard-boiled detective stories which originated in the United States in the 1930s. Rather, Haas incorporates elements of both subgenres. These crossings of boundaries not only have aesthetic consequences, but contribute to the novels’ critical agenda, a satirical criticism of Austrian society. Haas’s modifications of the literary model are aimed at integrating his criticism structurally and thematically rather than imposing it as a separate entity on his novels.

The basic narrative configuration of the detective narrative positions the detective against the perpetrator of the crime. The convention of the genre ensures the triumph of the detective; consequently the myth of the hero is imbedded in the narrative structure (Porter, 155). Two prototypes of detectives have emerged: the cerebral detective of the analytical crime novel who relies solely on his powers of observation and deduction to solve the crime and who is hardly touched by the events himself; and the action-oriented detective of the hard-boiled school whose hands-on approach to crime-solving often involves him in dangerous, violent situations.

Haas’s Simon Brenner shares a number of similarities with the detectives of the hard-boiled school, who, as critics have pointed out, embody criticism of a society that is characterized primarily by its strive for power and profit and has little compassion for the victims of such a system (Porter, 174ff.; Nusser, 119ff). The popularity of hard-boiled detective fiction rose in the twenties and thirties, a time of socioeconomic hardship in America which led to a widespread distrust of institutions and the government. The private eye became the lonely hero who fought the criminal forces that infested all structures of society: business, politics, law, and the police. Hired by “respectable” society to rescue it from the threats posed by criminal elements, he soon finds out that respectable society itself is deceitful, corrupt, and guilty. His resistance to power and money, reflected in his own modest circumstances, perseverance, and moral choices in face of deadly danger, contribute to the hero status of the private eye. Dennis Porter states with regard to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the creators of the best-known representatives of the hard-boiled detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe:

The private eyes of both authors are, then, genuinely popular heroes, because while they have remained small men by choice; as a point of honor, they also always manage in the end to have the last word against the class enemies of ordinary people—the rich, the powerful, and the official police. The apparent loser for once is the moral winner. (174)

Wolf Haas created a similar hero with his Simon Brenner, who has left the police department after nineteen years of service, tired of the presumptuous authority and prejudices of his superior. His choice to work as a private detective seems rather a necessity than a true calling. Like the private eyes of the hard-boiled school, Brenner lives on the margin of society. He has no fixed address or regular income, but constantly moves around taking on odd jobs to make ends meet. He also has no respect for authority, wealth, power, social standing, or institutions. His lack of ambition and his awkward decency enable him to expose people, situations, and institutions for what they are without regard for personal consequences. Like the private eye of the hard-boiled novel, Brenner embodies individualism, independence, and stubborn integrity, which come with the price of financial instability and lack of any type of permanent relationship.

Brenner also shares with the detectives of the hard-boiled school that he repeatedly falls victim to violence during his investigations. These incidents serve to emphasize the determination, perseverance, and hyper-masculinity of the detective. In Haas’s novels, while potentially fatal, these encounters with violence are not without a comical element suggesting the author’s satirical intent. For example, the perpetrator of Silentium! attempts to eliminate Brenner by locking him into a shower and dousing him with boiling hot water; in Wie die Tiere, Brenner looses half of his calf to a pit bulldog; in Der Knochenmann, the perpetrator attempts to slaughter Brenner with a meat cleaver. But even the loss of his little finger does not deter Brenner from his mission to prevent the death of another victim, nor do the beatings and other attempts on his life stop him from pursuing his cases. Instead, they only provoke a stubborn determination. Again, he displays the same perseverance and moral rectitude when faced with danger as his hard-boiled counterparts.

It has been pointed out that the private eye of the hard-boiled novel is a law unto himself, often crossing legal boundaries to follow his own code of justice. Likewise, Brenner is not averse to bending the law when it does not agree with his own sense of justice. In Auferstehung der Toten he neglects to report a young girl’s involvement in the murder:

Weil die Elfi, die hat jetzt einen toten Vater gehabt, der offiziell nie ihr Vater gewesen ist. Und die Schule abgebrochen. Und Stelle natürlich auch keine mehr. Und der Lorenz tot. Und die einzige, die sich um sie gekümmert hat, im Gefängnis. Und der Brenner hat sich gedacht, die Elfi sitzt jetzt in Zell, die ist gestraft genug. (152)

The fact that Brenner submits to the blackmail of a reporter not to contact a woman in whom both are romantically interested (like earlier private eyes, Brenner proves quite irresistible for women) in order to protect the girl’s secret shows the proverbial “soft spot” of the tough private eye. Brenner repeatedly covers for perpetrators whose crimes he considers justified or insignificant in face of the wrongs done to them. More serious, however, is his involvement in the death of the perpetrator in Silentium! While this murderer is quite despicable—he not only has murdered four people but is also responsible for the forced prostitution of young Filipinas and has just attempted to boil Brenner to death—his murder does challenge Brenner’s integrity. However here, too, Brenner follows the code of protecting the innocent from suffering unduly. He acts out of concern for the wife and five children of the man who would be destitute if the man were imprisoned. Just like the hard-boiled detectives, Brenner represents a position between that of the police and the criminal. Like them, he is a people’s champion who stands “on the margin of the law as representative of a higher law” (Porter, 169).

Despite all of his heroic qualities, Brenner appears quite ordinary, sharing the average appearance of the hard-boiled detective:

So ein untersetzter Typ, wo die Schultern fast breiter sind als die Beine lang. Nicht groβ, nicht klein und einen richtigen Kantschädel mit zwei senkrechten Falten in den Wangen. Und so eine rote, narbige Haut […]. (Auferstehung der Toten, 15)

In addition to his looks, Brenner’s speech, education, and interests underscore his averageness, which invites reader identification.(2) Dennis Porter points out that the hard-boiled detective, Chandler’s Philip Marlow and Hammett’s Sam Spade, for example, were created to resemble the average American (male) reader in speech, taste, life-style, and values (165). This differentiates the hard-boiled detective from the heroes of the classic analytical detective story, who are intellectual, eccentric, and upper-class and do not invite identification from the average reader. Brenner too is endowed with some typical “Austrian” traits and habits. Although quick-witted, he is habitually cranky and suffers frequently from migraines. He is not averse to using the system to his advantage. For example, in Auferstehung der Toten he attempts to keep the subsidized apartment provided for state employees even after leaving the police force. In Wie die Tiere he tries to escape the financial straits which force him to take on all kinds of odd jobs by trying to qualify for early retirement. However, the system proves always more corrupt, and Brenner’s attempts to con the system which invariably fail seem insignificant in comparison to the larger issues he uncovers during his investigations. He represents a protagonist whom Austrian readers recognize and with whom they might even identify. His lack of ambition, his precarious financial situation, his innate rebellion against presumptuous authority position him on the margin of society. Since this society in large part fraught with hypocrisy, corruption, greed, locale injustice, and false ambition, Brenner provides a positive counter-image. He preserves his individualism, his personal integrity, and especially his humanity in an increasingly self-serving, deceitful, and inauthentic world.

One of Brenner’s most distinctive characteristics is his intuition, which differentiates him from both the ruthless hero-detective of the hard-boiled novel and the personified rationality of the analytical detective. Already early on, Brenner intuitively knows the solution—it presents itself in the form of a song that he can’t get out of his mind. The narrator states that Brenner knew “Dass ihm das Unbewusste oft einen kleinen Tipp gibt. Er pfeift etwas, quasi Ohrwurm, und da steckt womöglich im Ohrwurm die Mordlösung drinnen” (Wie die Tiere, 111). However, Brenner lacks the ability to decode this clue correctly, mainly because of his faulty memory. For example, in Komm, süβer Tod he only understands at the end that his faulty memory of a line from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (“come, sweet death” instead of “come, sweet cross”) contained the solution to the murders, because the ambulance staff killed their diabetic patients by injecting them with a sugar solution.(3) While this tick with the catchy tune distinguishes Brenner from other detectives, it also serves to build up suspense. The reader is challenged to make the connection before Brenner and solve the enigma.

Following wrong clues and harboring false suspicions is part of the narrative convention of the detective story as it prolongs the plot and builds suspense. Another of Brenner’s peculiarities is his digressive method of investigation that often has him head in the wrong direction. He clearly lacks the analytical discipline and linearity of the detective of the classical whodunit, as the narrator repeatedly observes:

Und wo ein Umweg gewesen ist, dann hat ihn der Brenner garantiert genommen. Das hat ja seine Vorgesetzten bei der Polizei immer so zur Weiβglut getrieben. Und manchmal habe ich schon den Verdacht gehabt, er tut es absichtlich. Aber dann muβ ich immer wieder zugeben, er kann sich einfach wirklich nicht auf das Wesentliche konzentrieren. (Komm, süβer Tod, 124)

Brenner’s investigative detours, which usually are the result of involuntary associations and memories, are deemed inefficient by official detectives (his superiors at the police). However, they do eventually lead to the solving of the crime, thus favoring Brenner’s associative and intuitive method over the straightforward, simplifying method of the police.

Brenner’s digressions have an additional function. While his observations and discoveries are often unrelated to his case, they reveal other, sometimes equally grave and reprehensible crimes. For example, in Der Knochenmann Brenner comes across war-profiteering, manipulation of art prices, exploitation of foreign workers, forced prostitution, and exploitation of the loneliness and fear of senior citizens. In Silentium! he looks behind the façade of the Salzburger Festspiele to discover questionable attempts by the organizers to cater to the whims a self-indulgent, overly-satiated clientele. In Die Auferstehung der Toten his investigation reveals a long history of local injustices and exploitations. In Das ewige Leben he infiltrates a group of citizens intent on defending themselves against the perceived threat of local Romas. Brenner’s investigations reveal the pervasive nature of crime and its permutation of society. Critics of the analytical detective story have pointed out that its tendency to emphasize the power of logic and analytical deduction isolates the crime and reduces it to a technical problem which can be solved purely by intellect (Moretti, 144). Brenner’s digressive investigation prevents such an isolation and thus a trivialization of the crime.

With that Haas’s novels achieve a social-critical function that Peter Nusser sees realized in the thriller:

Der Thriller deutet an, daβ das Verbrechen in der Gesellschaft nicht die Ausnahme ist. Er hat damit aufgrund einer formalen Voraussetzung die von seinen besten Autoren ergriffene Möglichkeit, sozialkritische Funktionen zu übernehmen, das Verbrechen also nicht als bloβen Reiz (wie im Normalfall), sondern zur Denunziation einer korrupten oder insgesamt ‘gestörten’ Gesellschaft einzusetzen.(46)

Thus, Haas’s Austria is not the idyllic place of unspoiled beauty and innocence, but a country with its share of contemporary issues, problems, and shortcomings. Haas’s underscores this through his selections of the crimes scenes. It is quite evident that the settings for the murders in each novel are chosen to challenge conventional images of Austria. In the first novel,Auferstehung der Toten, the murder takes place in Zell am See, one of the most popular ski resorts in the Austrian Alps. The crime scene of Der Knochenmann is a restaurant famous for its grilled chicken located in a small town beautifully situated in the eastern part of Styria. In Komm, süβer Tod and Wie die Tiere the murders occur in Vienna, which because of its historical and cultural tradition is Austria’s main tourist attraction. Salzburg, Mozart’s hometown and host of the famous Festspiele, is turned into a crime scene in Silentium! (1999). For the last novel in the series, Haas chose the idyllic provincial town Graz, which in 2003 was named the cultural capital of Europe (“Europäische Kulturhauptstadt”) as his crime scene.

     As the murders are supposed to pose an enigma for the detective and the reader, they typically occur in unusual places that enhance their mysteriousness or render them especially sacrilegious. However, Colin Watson points out another function of the selection of the murder scene: they are often chosen to disturb and disrupt the reader’s sense of security. For example, British detective novels often are situated at locations associated with safety and familiarity: country estates, colleges, or exclusive London clubs, and a murder taking place in these locations upsets and challenges the feeling of safety (Watson, 169). Haas’s selection of crime scenes seems similarly motivated in that they represent the stereotypical tourist-Austria which is marketed all over the world. An example of this is the way the town Klöch, location of Der Knochenmann, is introduced by the TV announcer:

“Klöch is a sleepy little town in eastern Styria, close to the border of Hungary and Slovenia. In Austria we associate this gently hilly landscape with an idyll that today hardly exists any longer in a similar unspoiled manner. Not far from the well-known Styrian Tuscany, the wine route of Klöch is becoming more and more popular with every year. An appropriate number of stops for excursions and picnics exist in the area, as well as idyllicwine restaurants. […]” (29f.)

The  report sounds like an advertisement for tourism, stressing the unspoiled beauty of this part of Austria, its suitability for daytrips, and its great culinary offerings. By situating his murders in such well-known locations in Austria, Haas not only destroys the idyllic notion attributed to them, but also irritates the readers by challenging their sense of familiarity with these places.

Moreover, as Dennis Porter asserts, the relationship between the scene of the crime and the event can be either conjunctive or disjunctive: “Landscapes appear either as the source and extension of the crimes reported or as their antithesis” (190). The former is the case in Haas’s novel Silentium! where the first murder, discovered ata Catholic seminary for boys, provides a clear example. As the narrator states at the beginning of the novel, a Catholic boarding school is a rather unusual place for such a gruesome crime:

Und ausgerechnet im Marianum, wo man glauben möchte, da kommt der brave Bauernbub als Zehnjähriger auf der einen Seite hinein und acht Jahre später als halbfertiger Pfarrer auf der anderen Seite wieder heraus. Kein Wunder, daβ so lange niemand Verdacht geschöpft hat. Weil eigentlich unfaβbar, daβ ausgerechnet in der saubersten Internatsschule von ganz Salzburg so etwas möglich war” (Silentium!, 5)

However, the irony of this statement is unmistakable and signals to the reader that there might be more going on in the boarding-school that meets the eye. While insisting that it is inconceivable that something criminal could happen “ausgerechnet”  in a Catholic boarding-school, the narrator draws attention to the fact that this “clean” school has the purpose of turning young, healthy boys into catholic priests. That means, that the boys are instructed to deny or suppress their sexuality. The narrator depicts this as a natural, almost automatic process: the boys enter on one side and exit “semi-ready” eight years later, glancing over the methods employed to achieve this semi-readiness. Moreover, he emphasizes the “cleanness” of the school, by which as he is quick to point out he does not mean cleanliness or hygiene, but rather moral cleanness, drawing attention to the Catholic Church’s condemnation of sexuality. Brenner’s investigation, however, reveals this as hypocrisy. While the Catholic Church preaches sexual abstinence, one of its representative institutions, the Marianum, is profiting from the forced prostitution of young Filipina girls brought to Austria under the pretense of offering them work at the seminary. Haas links the forced prostitution directly to the Catholic Church’s attitude toward sexuality, as the following dialogue between Simon Brenner and his sidekick in this novel, René, shows:

“Diese Gestörten beten Tag und Nacht eine Jungfrau an! Und weiβt du, wohin das führt?”
“Sie glauben, wenn dasJungfernhäutchen einmal verletzt ist, ist es schon egal.”
“Kann man gleich die ganze Puppe zerfetzen.” (206)

Indeed, the Catholic seminary does not function like W. H. Auden’s “Great Good Place,” where the contradiction between murder and place serves to underscore that crime is but the exception that proves the rule (151). Rather, the location of the crime is also its source. By selecting the seminary as the crime site and by linking it to the crime, Haas attacks the moral credibility of the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions in Austria.

A similar conjunctive relationship between crime and crime scene can be established for all of Haas’s Brenner novels. In Komm, Süβer Tod, the ambulance service, supposedly a non-profit organization established to save lives, murders patients after having talked them into naming the ambulance as service sole beneficiary in their wills. The affluence of the idyllic tourist town which is the murder scene in Auferstehung der Toten is the result of a long history of exploitation and opportunism. The huge chicken restaurant with its gigantic meal portions in Der Knochenmann symbolizes the attempts of the owner to compensate for his impotence by murdering four people. In addition, the little village on the border to Hungary and Slovenia has become a haven for prostitution and other illegal activities. In Das ewige Leben the perpetrator comes from within the police. Haas chooses the crime scenes not only with the intention of destroying idyllic pretense, but also to implicate and therefore attack many of Austria’s revered institutions and cherished traditions: the tourist industry in Auferstehung der Toten, the Catholic Church as well as the Salzburg Festivals in Silentium!,ambulance services in Komm, süβer Tod, and the police in Das ewige Leben. The proverbial Austrian love for dogs becomes suspect in Wie die Tiere, while Der Knochenmann deals Austrians’ culinary partiality for “Backhendel” (fried chicken) a fatal blow.

In interviews Wolf Haas tends to downplay the critical aspect of his novels in favor of their entertaining qualities (F. Haas, 129). While his novels are extremely entertaining and their social criticism is hidden behind satire and subversive humor, it is just as potent as that of more serious literature. Thus Wolf Haas’s novels demonstrate that the boundaries between low and high culture, between popular and serious literature no longer exist. Haas succeeds in combining innovative narrative strategies with conventional features of a popular genre to present his readers with an entertaining as well a thought-provoking literary dissection of the Austrian myth of an ideal world.


(1) The series includes the novels Auferstehung der Toten (1996), Der Knochenmann (1997), Komm, süβer Tod (1998).
 Silentium! (2000), Wie die Tiere (2001), and Das ewige Leben (2003).
(2) Dennis Porter points out that Chandler’s Philip Marlow and Hammett’s Sam Spade, for example, were created to resemble the average American (male) reader in speech, taste, life-style, and values (165). This differentiates the hard-boiled detective from the heroes of the classic analytical detective story, who are intellectual, eccentric, and upper-class and do not invite identification from the average reader.
(3) However, even the correct text contains a clue since the ambulance service’s name is “Kreuzritter” (knights of the cross). Critics have pointed out the allusion to the Red Cross (Martens, 78).

Works Cited:

1.11. American and Austrian Literature and Film: Influences, Interactions and Intersections

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For quotation purposes:
Helga Schreckenberge: Wolf Haas’s Simon Brenner Novels: Austrian Adaptations and Transformations of the American Detective Story. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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