#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews SILVER PEBBLES by Hansjörg Schneider

Silver Pebbles is the second book in the Inspector Peter Hunkeler series to be deftly translated into English by Mike Mitchell. It finds the Basel police inspector a little older, a little wiser, and a little more incensed at the shortcomings of the lawmakers and lawbreakers he has to deal with (who are sometimes one and the same). Yet it also finds him a little more patient as he copes with the loss of a haul of diamonds, the profits from drug sales. Tipped off by the German police, Hunkeler is waiting for a mule to arrive in Basel from Frankfurt, but the mule gives the inspector the slip and flushes the diamonds down a station toilet into the Basel sewers, where they become lodged in a blocked side-pipe. Enter Erdogan, a Turkish ‘sewer rat’ who, having been sent down to free up the blockage on his evening off, discovers the diamonds; bingo! his dreams of buying a small hotel back home seem to be about to come true. This, however, is not music to his Swiss girlfriend’s ears: she knows he has a wife and family back in Turkey, and now that he can go back permanently, their comfortable, convenient love affair in Basel looks set to hit the buffers. Meanwhile, the mule faces his own problem: how to get the diamonds back before the drug dealers bring his career to a violent end. 

And so the stage is set for what is less a novel of painstaking detection than a gripping, slow-burn thriller, which carries you with it inexorably towards its messy outflow. Hunkeler is pilloried by the Public Prosecutor for screwing up at the station – but he knows full well that the small-time crooks who do the dirty work are doing it for important members of Basel society, who are untouchable simply because of who they are. And Hunkeler is sick of it: 

‘… whenever you set about trying to identify the people behind the drug trafficking and drag them out into the light … [you] were called off by the high-ups. For they were men of honour … members of boards of directors, old buddies of public prosecutors …’ 

He reflects that being a policeman isn’t about helping the people who really need it, but just being ‘a destroyer of people … a well-drilled watchdog … showing his teeth at every nod from above.’ And having spotted the ‘Culture for Basel’ committee – the archetypes of those high-ups – conferring in the art gallery, planning ‘World in Song’ week, discussing shepherd choirs in the Caucasus and the herd calls of the Tuareg, his fury reaches boiling point: ‘I’ve just seen a young woman lying in the snow in Rheingasse, with death written all over her face. And no one lifted a finger. Is that what’s normal in this town now?’ But, as a policeman, he knows that he‘s fated to be on the side of those in power.

So much then for the great and the good. But what about the bad and the ugly? Hunkeler has to find the diamonds before the drug mule does. He settles down to a watch and wait game; he knows that probing and asking too many questions will alert everyone involved, prompting them to vanish. Proaction won’t work; he just has to be fit and ready to react when they get too confident, or too rattled, and make a mistake. The urge to do something is gnawing at those Hunkeler has his eyes on: Erdogan’s girlfriend, Erika, is determined to keep him beside her, because ‘her love for [him] was only possible outside Turkey … here in Basel, in [her] apartment.’ The diamonds are a clear threat to that. Guy Kayat, the mule, knows he’s expendable: the police didn’t want him, they wanted the man who was to receive the diamonds. And more importantly, the tip-off meant he’d been betrayed: “… some high-up in the drugs business was trying to put Kayat’s boss out of business. It meant … a war … between two cartels …” – a war that could destroy him. The pressures are becoming unsustainable … and everyone knows it.

Silver Pebbles is a short novel and a compulsive read: don’t be surprised if you devour it in one go!

Reviewed by Max Easterman

SILVER PEBBLES

by Hansjörg Schneider

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Published by Bitter Lemon Press (January 2022)

December 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: ReviewsDecember 2021

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