Translated by Mike Mitchell — Basel CID Inspector Peter Hunkeler, first seen in translation in last year’s The Basel Killings, is stuck in traffic on his way to the train station. The Basel police department has received a tip off from their German counterparts that a mule is bringing a cache of diamonds into Switzerland on the Intercity Express. The diamonds were exchanged for drugs and are being carried by a young, well-dressed Lebanese man called Guy Kayat. It says much for Hunkeler’s state of mind that he doesn’t much care if he is late for the arrest or not.
In the end his team make two arrests, one is Kayat, the other a middle-aged Swiss man who the police believe is his contact, but not before Kayat has a chance to flush the stones down the toilet into the Basel sewers. Both men must be released after questioning and Hunkeler knows that no diamonds means no prosecution.
Middle-aged, divorced and probably drinking too much, Hunkeler represents a familiar character type for enthusiasts of crime fiction. His years on the force have jaded his outlook, he finds it difficult to care overly about the case and even his outrage at some of the injustices it throws up is half-hearted. The powerful men behind the deal, some of whom are upstanding members of the Basel social and business elite, look likely to get away with their crimes. But, instead of being inspired to ever greater efforts, Hunkeler uses this to justify his cynicism.
He is indifferent to the hectoring of his colleagues and the state prosecutor, and only seems to come alive when thinking about his estranged daughter or when he is with his girlfriend, Hedwig. It is not a flattering portrait, especially for someone who is the book’s protagonist, but author Hansjörg Schneider manages to make him likeable. It is his extreme indifference which distinguishes Hunkeler from other melancholic middle-aged detectives like Wallander or Beck.
The missing diamonds represent different things to each character. Without them, Hunkeler knows he has no case but that matters little and he is content for his team to take a passive role of keeping his suspects under observation. For Kayat, locating the diamonds is a matter of life and death. Should he return without them, his employers will suspect a double cross and kill him, should he go on the run they will track him down.
However, Turkish seasonal worker Erdogan Civil has found the diamonds in the sewers of Basel. Their discovery means an end to his daily grind in the stinking tunnels and the chance to return to his wife and family as a rich man. For his Swiss girlfriend, Erika, who works at the till in a supermarket in a poor area of the city, the diamonds mean the end of their affair and a return to loneliness. She has to watch as he goes slightly mad with the diamond equivalent of gold fever, wanting to buy expensive cars and fantasising about his new life. Eventually, she will have to take action…
Nominally a police procedural, Silver Pebbles is light on action or even detection really, and it wasn’t until about three quarters of the way through the novel that I realised what I was really reading was more of a farce. All of the men, including Hunkeler, are cast as fools, chasing after the diamonds and never really knowing what they are doing or why. The only wisdom on display comes from the two girlfriends, Erika and Hedwig.
Silver Pebbles is a sly surprise, subverting expectations, and a delightful way to start the new year.
Bitter Lemon Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars