A Swiss gem: Hansjörg Schneider’s Silver Pebbles, tr. Mike Mitchell (Switzerland)

Hansjörg Schneider, Silver Pebbles, tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell, Bitter Lemon Press 2022 [1993]

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.

‘Crime Fiction in German’ publication day! With a FREE CHAPTER!

Today sees the publication of Crime Fiction in German by the University of Wales Press. For all us involved in writing and producing the book, this is a hugely exciting moment, not least because Crime Fiction in German is a genuine first: the first volume in English to give a comprehensive overview of German-language crime fiction from its origins in the early nineteenth century to the present day. And it’s World Book Day here in the UK as well – what could be finer?

To celebrate there’s a FREE introductory chapter available to all readers!

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About the book

  • Crime Fiction in German explores crime fiction from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the former East and West German states.
  • It investigates National Socialist crime fiction, Jewish-German crime fiction, Turkish-German crime fiction and the Afrika-Krimi (crime set predominantly in post-colonial Africa), expanding the notion of a German crime-writing tradition along the way.
  • It examines key areas such as the West German Soziokrimi (social crime novel), the Frauenkrimi (women’s crime writing), the Regionalkrimi (regional crime fiction), historical crime fiction and the Fernsehkrimi (TV crime drama). In the process, it highlights the genre’s distinctive features in German-language contexts. And yes, humour is one of them 🙂
  • It includes a map of German-speaking Europe, a chronology of crime publishing milestones, extracts from primary texts, and an annotated bibliography of print and online resources in English and German.
  • All quotes are given in English and German. No knowledge of German is required!
  • The contributors – Julia Augart (University of Namibia), Marieke Krajenbrink (University of Limerick), Katharina Hall (Swansea University), Martin Rosenstock (Gulf University, Kuwait), Faye Stewart (Georgia State University), Mary Tannert (editor and translator of Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction) – are all experts in the field of crime fiction studies.

Further details, including a table of contents, are available at the University of Wales Press website. The paperback is available from Amazon here.

Now read on for details of the FREE chapter!

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The Free Chapter

While Crime Fiction in German is an academic volume that hopes to be useful to scholars in the field, a key aim has been to make the book accessible to ALL readers with an interest in crime fiction. We’re aware that not everyone may be able to buy the volume (academic texts have smaller print runs and are mainly bought by university libraries, and therefore have a different pricing structure to mass-produced books). If not, one option is to ask the local library to order a copy. Another is to read on for a very special treat…

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can download Chapter One of Crime Fiction in German for FREE.

The chapter gives an overview of the volume and of the history of German-language crime fiction. It’s PACKED with criminal goodness, and thanks to the generous financial support of Swansea University, you can download from the university’s Cronfa research repository. And did I mention that it’s FREE?

❤ In return, we ask two tiny favours ❤

  • If you like the chapter and want to tell other people, please send them the link below rather than the actual PDF. Why? Because then we can track how many times the chapter has been downloaded. If there’s lots of activity, more ‘open access’ projects like this one may be funded in the future.
  • Secondly, if you download the chapter and have a moment, could you leave a comment below saying where you’re from? This will help us see how far the chapter has travelled. It could be rather fun – I’m looking forward to seeing if we can get ‘Leipzig, Germany’, ‘Moose Jaw, Canada’, and ‘Beijing, China’ all in a row.

Right, here we go! The link to the Crime Fiction in German Chapter One is

https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191

Enjoy and please spread the word!

Map of World

Deutschi Crime Night and the ‘Crime Fiction in German’ volume

The wonderful Deutschi Crime Night took place yesterday at Waterstones Piccadilly. The panelists were Austrian author Bernhard Aichner, German author Sascha Arango, the acclaimed translator Anthea Bell, New Books in German editor Charlotte Ryland and me, with Euro Noir expert Barry Forshaw in the chair – who did us proud.

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Photo by Charlotte Ryland

The discussion was wide-ranging and fascinating, and included the following: Sascha on his decision to set The Truth and Other Lies in a unidentifiable, universal space (like Nesser’s ‘van Veeteren’ series), in contrast to the regionally rooted writing he does for the Kiel episodes of the German TV crime drama Tatort (Crime Scene), and about the influence of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series on his writing; Bernhard on his creation of the ‘lovable serial killer’ Blum and the research he carried out for Woman of the Dead in a funeral home and at autopsies; Anthea on the process of translating the novel, which she really enjoyed, and on translating more generally, which she described as ‘finding the author’s voice’.

In addition, we took a canter through the crime fiction of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, discussing early German-language crime, crime greats from the Weimar period such as Fritz Lang’s M, Nazi crime fiction, Austrian crime fiction’s use of satire, Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s complex detective figures, and the boom in historical crime fiction since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (I drew on the forthcoming Crime Fiction in German volume when making my contribution to this portion of the discussion, of which more below). Charlotte filled us in on the work of New Books in German and some crime fiction coming our way soon, including the beguilingly entitled Der nasse Fisch (The Wet Fish) by Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe’s Die Falle (The Trap). She also helped us ponder the question of why German-language crime hasn’t quite had the breakthrough it deserves in the UK, with a publisher in the audience adding that she was confident it has the capacity to do so. A good boost would be provided by some German-language crime in the BBC4 Saturday crime slot…

Waterstones crime event

Anti-clockwise from front: Charlotte Ryland, Anthea Bell, Bernhard Aichner, Sascha Arango, Barry Forshaw, Mrs Pea (photo by Jennifer Kerslake)

Barry also kindly gave me the opportunity to talk about the Crime Fiction in German volume, which is out in March 2016 and will provide the first comprehensive overview in English of German-language crime from its origins in the 1800s to the present day. I’ve set up a tab about the volume here, and you can see further details on the University of Wales Press website. The volume is part of the UWP ‘European Crime Fictions‘ series, which already contains volumes on French, Italian, Iberian and Scandi crime.

The cover for the Crime Fiction in German volume has just been finalised and looks gorgeous. I love the psychedelic green (Schwarzwald on speed?) and the lashings of blood. And just look at those clever little bullet holes.

German CF cover final

Finally, as a few people from our lovely audience were asking for reading recommendations after the event, here are some past ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ posts about German-language crime:

Alles Gute und viel Spaß!

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge (first review of Swiss crime!)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (Das Verbrechen), tr. from the German by Joel Agee, Pushkin Press 2017 [1958].

 First line: Last March I had to give a lecture in Chur on the art of writing detective stories.

There are very few crime novels that I keep coming back to, but The Pledge is one of them. Written over half a century ago in 1958, it’s one of three crime novels by the renowned Swiss dramatist and writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (the others are The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951)). The Pledge is my favourite of the three, for its fine writing and penetrating critique of the crime genre. Its tantalising subtitle is Requiem auf den Kriminalroman or ‘Requiem for the Crime Novel’.

The Pledge tells the story of Swiss police inspector Matthäi, who just is clearing his desk prior to a secondment in Jordan when a young girl’s murder is called in. After breaking the news to the girl’s parents, Matthäi is asked by the mother to promise ‘on his eternal salvation’ that he will find the murderer, and this, after a brief hesitation, he does: the pledge of the title. Thus begins a long investigation, which eventually tips over into a personal obsession that will threaten Matthäi’s sanity (making him one of the most  sympathetic investigative figures in the genre).

Matthäi’s tale is told to the figure of ‘the author’ by Dr. H, a former chief of police in Zurich, who was also once Matthäi’s boss. Dr. H is prompted to recount the story after attending the author’s talk on writing detective fiction, as a means of highlighting the ‘lies’ peddled by his work:

“What really bothers me about your novels is the storyline, the plot. There the lying just takes over, it’s shameless. You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: here’s the criminal, there’s the victim, here’s an accomplice, there’s a beneficiary. And all the detective needs to know is the rules: he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy. You can’t come to grips with reality by logic alone. Granted, we police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our schemes that success very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favour. […] But you fellows in the writing game don’t care about that. You don’t try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world. That world may be perfect, but it’s a lie.”

So it’s the disjunction between the controlled fictions produced by ‘the author’ and the frustrating ‘reality’ of Matthäi’s troubled investigation that’s the catalyst for Dr. H’s narrative – a wonderful ‘frame story’ that cheekily critiques the very genre the novel employs and implicitly wags a finger at all crime fiction fans for buying into its fantasy world.

As if all of this wasn’t clever enough, Dürrenmatt manages to have his cake and eat it too, by relating a story that thematises the impossibility of absolute closure and justice, but also provides the reader with a satisfying resolution in line with the expectations of the genre. Although of course, that could just be ‘the author’ meddling with the tale Dr. H told him…

The novel was adapted for film in 2001, directed by Sean Penn and with Jack Nicholson in the lead role.