Translated from German by Mike Mitchell
Continuing my personal Spring German Noir litfest, we come to the second title from Bitter Lemon Press. Also the second title from a Swiss author set in cold wintery weather. (It follows Kalmann, which I reviewed last week.) This time, however, we have relocated from Iceland to Basel in Switzerland, where the Rhine is covered in snow, and the race is on to find a cache of silver pebbles (diamonds) which have gone awol.
I’ll let the book blurb explain the setup:
An elegant young Lebanese man, carrying diamonds in his bag, is on the train from Frankfurt to Basel – a drug mule on the return journey. At Basel train station, Hunkeler is waiting for him after a tipoff from the German police, but the courier first manages to flush the stones down the public toilets. Erdogan, a young Turkish sewage worker, finds them in the pipes under the station. To him they mean wealth and the small hotel he always wanted to buy near his family village. To his Swiss girlfriend Erika, the jewels signify the end of their life together. She knows that Erdogan has a wife and children in Turkey.
For the courier, finding the stones is a matter of life and death. His employers are on their way to ‘tidy things up’. For Hunkeler the diamonds are the key to finding the people behind the drug deal. They turn out to include, not only the bottom-feeding criminal gangs, but the bankers and politicians very high up the Basel food chain.
So three interested parties here: the courier, Kayat, who has the most to lose; the Turkisk immigrant, Erdogan, who has the most to gain, and the police, led by Inspector Hunkeler, who is not interested in the middle men, but in those who are paying them. Actually Hunkeler, for personal reasons, is more interested in a change in the law that would shut down the whole shoddy drug business in an instance. However, in the absence of such he and his team must do their utmost to find the diamonds and shut down the dealers.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Hunkeler’s team comprised of the sharpest tools in the box? It is not, giving Hunkeler plenty to be grumpy about. Much ingenuity, on the other hand, is employed by the courier both in evading the police despite the tipoff, and discovering who actually found his flushed-down-the-pan diamonds. Given the naïvety of the lucky finder, Kayat should have little trouble in retrieving them. But then Erdogan is stubborn, and he has a secret weapon, Erika. Now she is a woman with an agenda, all of her own, one who knows how to bide her time to get exactly what she wants …
It seemed to me that Schneider, in what was the debut in his Inspector Hunkeler series (the second to be translated into English) devoted as many pages to Erika as he did to his inspector. And what an insightful, humane character portrait it was of someone who had no wish to lose her younger lover. Erika’s relationship with Erdogan, complex as it is, contrasts with Hunkeler’s relationship with his lover, Hedwig; the latter couple not one of convenience, yet not intimately involved on a day-to-day basis. Ah, the complexities of human existence.
The other outstanding character in this novel is Basel. To be precise Basel in the snow. Picturesque certainly, but nothing likely to attract the tourist in me. Although I’ve always fancied making the train journey from Frankfurt to Basel, with which the novel opens. Something for the summertime though.