Translated by Mike Mitchell – Basel is an icy city in winter, located in a corner of Switzerland, just spitting distance from both France and Germany. It is a different Switzerland than the ski slopes, Swiss watches and secret banks; Basel is a snow-capped city with a conservative population that at best sees distrust of recent immigrants from the Balkans.
Basel Killings has Basel Criminal Investigation Division Inspector Peter Hunkeler. Not your average criminal fix hero, Hunkeler is an aging man struggling uncomfortably with an enlarged prostate, without a bar jumping on a cold October evening, a night that might as well be in December. Hunkeler steps out of a filthy bar and discovers that he cannot come to his apartment to pee. On the way home, he sees a drunk, a man he knows well from the bars he visits, and stumbles across to talk to him. Hunkeler moans about Basel, about his love life and about work, before realizing that Hardy is not responding. The old drunk does not answer because he is dead – strangled to death and then with a cut ear and takes his diamond ring with him. The sight is enough to make Hunkeler vomit, an unwelcome contamination of the crime scene.
Despite the fact that Basel is a city of 175,000, it seems that Hunkeler knows everyone and knows everything about the darkest and most seeded part of the city. The billiard hall nearby is a popular drinking spot for Albanians, and the other officers on site are quick to pinpoint the crime on them. “If it was one of them,” mutters one of Hunkeler’s subordinates early on, “he’s been over the border a long time ago.” This explanation is a little too simple for Hunkeler, who despite being shifted from the case due to his involvement with the victim continues to dig into what really happened. Hunkeler sees a connection between this and another murder, the body of a discovered woman strangled in a rural area outside Basel, with her ear cut out and a diamond notch removed.
Hunkeler’s politics play a strong role in The Basel Killings, with his cynical impression of Swiss life coloring every conversation he has with his colleagues, his girlfriend and even the dead man in the opening scene. These views from the center-left are a reaction to those around him, who are quickly blaming society’s diseases on immigrants and outsiders. Schneider was known as a philosopher and playwright for over 20 years in his home country before turning his hand against crime, and as a result, he brings with him a deep understanding of humanity. By presenting both sides, Schneider makes his own opinions obvious, but gives no easy answers. The Balkan conflict was still fresh in memory when Schneider wrote The Basel Killings in 2004, and immigration from the former Yugoslavia and the way it shaped life throughout Europe are the main drivers of the tension at the heart of the Basel killings.
The drunken detective with his best years long behind him is permeated into the world of crime fiction, but The Basel Killings manages to inject some fresh life into this trope. Hunkeler’s intoxication is unapologetic and presented in an actual, unsympathetic way. Hunkeler is like an aging Maigret with Martin Beck politics, and fans of both series will enjoy this book. The planning and pace reflect the cold, wet, foggy weather in Basel. This is atmospheric crime at its best, and everything about The Basel Killings is done right – the length is just right, the atmosphere is dark, the translation is discreet with chunks of foreign words that fit into a city stuck in a small corner that borders France and Germany, and is suitable for an author known for his use of the Swiss dialect.
Basel Killings in translation is billed as the first in the Inspector Hunkeler series, but it was actually the fifth to be published in German. The original title was Hunkeler does things, which means ‘Hunkeler does things’. First of all, I’m glad the title was changed, but I wonder if the title change makes room for more of the series to be translated. I want more of Hunkeler’s back story, I want to know what led to Hunkeler being where he is today. It’s my only criticism of The Basel Killings that it left me with more. With ten books in the series in German, published between 1993 and 2020, we will hopefully see more of Inspector Hunkeler in the coming years.
For more on European migration in the field of criminal fiction, see The Greek Wall or this country is no stranger. You can also cross the Balkans in Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark.
Bitter lemon press
Kindle / Print / iBook
CFL rating: 5 stars