#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE MURDER OF ANTON LIVIUS by Hansjörg Schneider

I am who I am. And I don’t intend to change … I’m a lone wolf and always will be. Thus Peter Hunkeler, Inspector with the Basel CID, ever the grumpy misfit, supposedly exempt from work, special tasks only and not exactly pleased at being dragged from his post-New Year’s Eve slumber to attend to what appears to be nothing more than a routine, if somewhat gory, murder investigation. If only … and not only is the victim, Anton Flückiger, not who he claims to be (he was born Anton Livius, in what was East Prussia) but he has the misfortune to be murdered, shot in the head, then hung up with a meathook above the door of Chalet Enzian … like a lump of meat. The chalet is on his allotment, but the allotment, though rented by Basel for its citizens only, is on French soil, and so the case has to be handled by the Police Nationale based in Mulhouse in Alsace. Basel CID is to assist the French, which Hunkeler knows means being secondary, hamstrung; but it is how it is and his grumpiness just gets deeper. 

From the very start, the investigation lays bare the tensions between the Swiss and the French: … Alsatian halfwits … barks one of Hunkeler’s colleagues, Do you think we want to leave it to those French clowns to solve this murder? He was one of us. The Swiss prosecutor, whilst trying to be sweetly co-operative, manages to enrage his French counterpart by referring to Mulhouse as Mülhausen (its German name). It’s left to Hunkeler to swallow his churlishness and to try and smooth the ruffled feathers. As always, he uses the fact that he has a house in Alsace, as well as his flat in Basel, to slip back and forth across the border, following his nose to sniff out the truth from the bewildering and conflicting information they’re gathering. There’s the scent of several red herrings – or are they?? – to distract him: the slaughter of fourteen rabbits on one allotment, then of four ducks on another; a smashed-up barbecue and a burned down chalet. There are plenty of immigrant allotment holders and the spectre of xenophobia hovers: Nothing is sacred to those Muslims … They want to rule the world, even here in Switzerland … In a few decades there will be no real Swiss children any more. So, is Livius’ murder just the climax of a series of internecine personal and petty quarrels that have got out of hand? Hunkeler’s instinct is to demur, but he wonders why there is nothing in the official files to explain how Livius got from being a German in the Wehrmacht in 1942 to becoming Flückiger, a Swiss citizen in the Emmental some ten years later. 

He has to tread with care: the co-operation agreement means he’s not supposed to do any sleuthing outside Switzerland, but he is convinced there’s more to this murder than local enmities. So he has to keep under the French radar. The task isn’t made any easier by the innate hostility of many Alsatians to anyone from Basel poking their noses into their local affairs. And then there’s Zürich Press pack, whose own investigations are a step ahead of the police and rack up the pressure on them on both sides of the border, when they publish information they’re not supposed to know. As that pressure rises, Hunkeler begins to suspect that the murder has its motive way back when, in events, mostly and perhaps deliberately forgotten, in a small village in Alsace.

Once again, Hansjörg Schneider weaves a gripping tale, elegantly translated by Astrid Freuler, so perfectly detailed in its sense of place that I was unable to resist getting out my maps of Alsace and Emmental to follow Hunkeler’s movements! The author’s great skill is in getting under the skin of the Swiss mentality and its focus on a placid daily life: he reveals the hidden complexities and tensions of a nation that prefers to be seen as homogeneous. He builds layer upon layer of fact on fact, speculation on speculation, suspicion on suspicion, each one so obviously the possible motive for the murder that the final revelation is not so much a ‘rabbit-out-of-a-hat’ than a case of ‘why didn’t I see it first?’. But then, if I had, I wouldn’t have needed to read past page … ! Schneider is truly a master of suspense.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE MURDER OF ANTON LIVIUS

Written by Hansjörg Schneider

Translated from the German by Astrid Freuler

Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2023)

December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman spent thirty-five years as a BBC broadcaster. He was a lecturer in journalism for seventeen years at Huddersfield University and is today a translator, media trainer with Sounds Right, jazz musician and reviewer.


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