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Johannes Mario Simmel: Million-selling Austrian novelist

The writer Johannes Mario Simmel wrote 35 novels whose serious themes – the Third Reich, the Cold War, the drug trade, racism, his fervent pacifism – did not impede their progress on to the best-seller lists. His books sold 73 million copies and were translated into 33 languages, making him one of the most successful of all German-language writers. He was also responsible for 22 film scripts which included Es geschehen noch Wunder (1951, Miracles Still Happen), a comedy with Hildegard Knef, and Robinson soll nicht sterben (1957, The Legend of Robinson Crusoe) with Horst Buchholz.

Simmel was born in Vienna in 1924, the son of a German chemist. His father, who was Jewish, fled to Britain after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, but, after spending some time in England, Simmel and his mother, an editor for a film company, spent the war years in Austria. After matriculation, Simmel trained as a chemical engineer and was employed on war work. In 1945, Simmel gave up his job in industry, becoming an interpreter for the occupying U S Army.

However, Simmel soon turned to journalism, writing reviews and stories for the Vienna newspaper Welt am Abend. From 1950, he worked as a reporter for the Munich illustrated weekly magazine Quick in Europe and America, and began to establish himself as an author. Simmel's Begegnungen im Nebel (1947, "Encounters in the Fog"), a collection of stories, brought him praise for his originality, flowing style and poetic language.

But he was soon to be criticised for sacrificing literary style for popularity with Das geheime Brot (1950, "The secret bread"), Ich gestehe alles (1953, "I confess everything") and Gott schützt die Liebenden (1956, "God protects lovers"). However, the book which brought him his breakthrough into the best-seller lists was Es muss nicht immer Kaviar sein (1960, It Can't Always Be Caviar), a spy novel set in the Second World War.

There followed Lieb Vaterland magst ruhig sein (1965, Dear Fatherland, 1969, also appearing as Double Agent – Triple Cross), a Cold War drama, which was made into a prize-winning film in 1976, and Und Jimmy ging zum Regenbogen (1970, The Caesar Code), adapted as a film (1971) and for television (2008). With a Polish-German love story, Simmel turned his attention to the mis-use of genetic engineering in Doch mit den Clowns kamen die Tränen (1987, "With the clowns came tears"). His influences included Hans Fallada, Graham Greene and Georges Simenon.

In his later years he clashed with the Austrian politician Jörg Haider, whose right-wing views Simmel abhorred. He was awarded many prizes in Germany and Austria, and was also honoured by the UN for his work opposing racism. His last novel was Liebe ist die letzte Brücke ("Love is the last bridge"). His manuscripts and letters have been collected by Boston University.

The weekly newspaper Der Spiegel called Simmel "a keen-eyed chronicler of our times", and the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki said that, "more than almost any other contemporary author, Simmel has a fabulous eye for themes, problems and motives".

David Childs

Johannes Mario Simmel, writer: born Vienna, Austria 24 April, 1924; three times married; died Zug, Switzerland 1 January 2009.