#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE BASEL KILLINGS by Hansjörg Schneider

The Basel Killings (originally published in 2004), is the first of a series of novels featuring Inspector Peter Hunkeler and the first to be translated – with panache by Mike Mitchell – into English. At first reading, Hunkeler seems to be the paradigm of the troubled detective, à la Rebus or Harry Hole: past his prime, divorced, with a daughter who seems to have no part in his life and partner who’s not there when he needs her; troubled by too much nicotine and alcohol; even more troubled by health problems (heart and prostate). However, what redeems this story from being just another police pot-boiler – and makes it a true humdinger – is the setting. Basel is not just another Swiss city full of just-so Swiss people, but one that hides a thrumming maelstrom of quirky characters: Turks, Serbs, Belarusians as well as Swiss misfits, all sailing too close to the criminal wind – prostitution, drugs and much else. And for some that turns out to be fatal, in a series of deaths carried out with a modus operandi that defies explanation: strangled, their throat slashed and their left earlobe slit – and a stud of jewellery set in the lobe stolen … but nothing else taken.  

For Hunkeler’s colleagues – and rivals on the force – this is a clear case of an Albanian drugs feud. Hunkeler begs to differ, but his wayward behaviour – getting into fights, peeing against an ornamental tree outside the Cantonalbank – gives his departmental opponents the excuse they want to take him off the case. However, the unique situation of Basel – at the intersection of three countries all speaking some dialect of German and all running separate police forces looking into the same cases – rather foils their plans, and he pursues his investigations out of sight and mind. For, though Switzerland isn’t part of the EU, its borders with France and Germany are no barrier to criminals, as well as the law-abiding and the law-enforcing, who criss-cross them at will. And it’s in this context that the story, which gets off to a somewhat slow, stuttering start, really takes on a very particular and quite enthralling pace: the mystery deepening as Hunkeler roams through rural Baselland, Alsace and southern Germany in search of clues. 

Much has been written about the twentieth-century political sins of the Germans and the French, but relatively little about the skeletons in the Swiss cupboard, skeletons that turn out to be the driving force behind the Basel killings: a history of the powerful versus the powerless. 

‘Individual people kept on gaining power over the rest. Once they were in power, they went over the top and became crazy … And many of the powerless had to suffer from that.’ 

The Alsatian French and Breisgau Germans are intensely suspicious of inquisitive incomers, but it’s in this divided and multi-ethnic triangle that Hunkeler doggedly uncovers the facts that show it’s the dirty secrets of the Swiss state that are the problem. 

‘The dirt sticks to us … it’s stuck there inside us. You can scrub as much as you like. We’re like the plague that can’t be eradicated … They wanted to save us from ourselves. They didn’t succeed.”

This is an absorbing story; Hansjörg Schneider paints a disturbing picture of a cruelty that has lain undiscussed behind the façade of Swiss propriety and complacency; and all the while he keeps us guessing right to the end.

Reviewed by Max Easterman 

THE BASEL KILLINGS

Written by Hansjörg Schneider

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2021)

May 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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