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.