Hansjörg Schneider, Silver Pebbles, tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell, Bitter Lemon Press 2022 
First lines: The Frankfurt-Basel Intercity – a sleek, streamlined train – was crossing the Upper-Rhine plain. It was the middle of February, and there were fingers of snow along the bare branches of the vines going up the slope to the east.
I read Silver Pebbles at the end of last year, thanks to an advance copy from Bitter Lemon Press, and enthusiastically included it in my best-of-year round up. But I want to give the novel a bit more breathing space here in a post of its own, as it’s just out in the UK now and will be out in the US in February.
Although the Bitter Lemon website describes the novel as the second in the acclaimed ‘Inspector Peter Hunkeler’ series, it was actually the first of the novels to be published in the German-speaking world back in 1993. This makes it an especially good place to start if you’ve not yet read The Basel Killings, which came out last year.
Silver Pebbles introduces us to jaded Basel police inspector Peter Hunkeler, who’s nearing retirement, and treats us to a wonderfully absorbing case.
When elegantly attired Lebanese smuggler Guy Kayat flushes some diamonds down a station toilet to evade the police, he sets off a chain of bizarre events. The diamonds are found by Erdogan Civil, a sewage worker called in to clear a blockage, who immediately thinks his dream of opening a hotel back in Turkey is about to come true. But of course, life is infinitely more complicated than that, as Erdogan’s supermarket-cashier girlfriend Erika Waldis realises straight away…
This is a very human tale, told in a way that reminded me a bit of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series – the novel has a matter-of-fact style leavened with genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour, not to mention the odd Keystone Cops moment when the police tie themselves up in knots. But it’s Erika who is the slow-burning star of the show, with a perceptiveness and intellect to match the police inspector’s own.
Silver Pebbles still feels remarkably fresh today, probably because it has some universal truths to share with (middle-aged) readers. It’s no surprise to find that Schneider is a famous playwright and essayist back in Switzerland, or that his 10-novel crime series has won major awards such as the Friedrich Glauser Prize. And translator Mike Mitchell does a particularly lovely job of capturing the novel’s humour and Inspector Hunkeler’s grumpiness.
And speaking of Swiss crime fiction… if you haven’t yet read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge (1958), then you’re in for a treat. It remains one of my all-time favourite crime novels, and has to be one of the cleverest Krimis ever written, especially in terms of subverting genre conventions. You can read my (updated) post on it here…
And finally, a topical crime oddity…
Many of you will know the British TV police series Line of Duty, which features the iconic AC-12 unit carrying out internal investigations into potentially corrupt members of the police.
Yesterday, the satirical campaign group Led by Donkeys released a spoof video that features AC-12 (Ted Hastings, Kate Fleming and Steve Arnott) interrogating Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the political scandal dubbed #PartyGate – as part of ‘Operation BYOB’!
Now, I’m a keen crime drama and politics watcher, but I’ve never seen anything like this before: a cult TV series that pulled in 12.8 million viewers for its last season finale being used to intervene directly in a political situation, and instrumentalising crime fiction conventions (in this case the classic ‘police interrogation scene’) in order to expose a politician’s ‘crimes’.
Leaving the politics of the matter aside, can anyone think of a similar kind of intervention in the past? A political statement made using a TV drama in ‘real time’, as opposed to being incorporated into an episode after the fact?
The video was posted yesterday and has had 7.2 million views on Twitter to date… You can read all about it here.
Sounds like a great read, Mrs. P. It’s funny how some of those fine books from a few (or even many) years ago are only now getting some of the attention they deserve. I love it when publishers find these little gems and create really effective translations of them.
That’s a really good point, Margot. There’s a treasure trove of great untranslated crime fiction out there – and in this case I think the novel ‘reaches out’ across the years thanks to its humanity and the kindness it shows its characters.
As a backer of Led by Donkeys I was most impressed by their latest effort, despite never having watched LOD.
Separately, I like the sound of this book. It seems a shame it’s taken till now to get a translation – must go and hunt down a copy!
Led By Donkeys are a formidable campaign group, but I think they’ve excelled themselves this time in terms of designing an intervention that reaches as many people as possible. Arguably no better way to do so than by co-opting an incredibly popular TV crime drama. I note that Jed Mercurio, the series’ writer, retweeted the video…
Silver Pebbles: yes, it was quite a wait to see it in translation! I’m not sure why that would be (could be something technical e.g. rights issues), but I’m really glad that Bitter Lemon Press have made it happen.
à propos de rien – have you encountered any crime fiction set in Luxembourg?
Hello Paul! As it happens, I have – though they’re not translated as yet. Tom Hillenbrand’s popular ‘Xavier Kieffer’ series is set in Luxembourg and styled as ‘culinary crime’ – the investigator runs a posh restaurant there. I recently wrote a report on the latest novel for a German publisher hoping to sell the translation rights. It’s an entertaining series that takes on some interesting topics (e.g. the decline of bees and the impact on pollination and honey production). This webpage (in German) has an overview: https://www.kiwi-verlag.de/buch/reihe/die-xavier-kieffer-krimis
Many thanks as well for the donation! Much appreciated.
Will try Teufelsfruch in German , ordered a copy from A……n as European bookshop didn’t have it. On your recommendation I read a couple of Jakob Arjouni’s in German, hard going – lots of slang – but good stories.
Hats off to you, Paul – it can be tricky dealing with slang! I hope you get on well with Teufelsfrucht – I haven’t read that one, but there were lots of enjoyable descriptions of Luxembourg (city and geography) in his latest, and I’d expect the same of the others in the series. These should match up with info and images you’ll find online – which might be of help.