A dead man on a grave and two
Studer switched off the engine, dismounted from his
motorbike and marvelled at the sudden silence all
around. In the fog, yellow, greasy and matted like
unwashed wool, walls appeared, the gleam of a redtiled
roof. Then the sun pierced the mist, striking a
round sign and making it shine like gold. No, it wasn’t
gold but some other, much less precious, metal, a flat
disc with two eyes, a nose and a mouth drawn on it and
spiky hair sticking out round the edge. An inscription
dangled below the sign: The Sun Inn. Well-worn stone
steps led up to a door, in the frame of which stood a
very old man. Studer had the feeling he recognized
him, but the old man seemed unwilling to acknowledge
the sergeant, for he turned away and disappeared
inside the inn. A gust set the fog swirling, and
once more inn, door and sign vanished.
Again the sun pierced the greyness. A low wall on
the right-hand side of the street appeared, glass beads
glistened on wreaths, gold lettering on gravestones
shone, and box leaves gleamed like emeralds.
Three figures were standing round a grave: an
officer of the rural gendarmerie in uniform, to his
right a smooth-shaven, elegantly clad man, who looked
young, and to his left an oldish man with an unkempt
blond beard streaked with white. The bitter argument
that was raging between two of them could be heard
out in the street.
Studer shrugged his shoulders, pushed his bike
alongside the worn-down steps, lifted it up onto its
stand and went into the cemetery, towards the grave
where two of the living were arguing while a third
stood watch in silence.
And Sergeant Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police
sighed despondently several times as he walked. He
didn’t have an easy life, he thought.
That morning the deputy governor had phoned
police headquarters from Roggwil. The body of a certain
Farny, he said, had been found in the cemetery of
the village of Pfründisberg. For the last nine months
this Farny had been living in the Sun Inn, and it
was Brönnimann, the landlord, who had found the
body and informed the village policeman. Merz, the
policeman, had reported that the cause of death was a
shot to the heart.
“So far I have not been able to put an investigation
in train, but it looks suspicious to me. The doctor
maintains it’s a case of suicide. I do not agree! To be on
the safe side, I feel it is important to have an experienced
detective present. The cemetery’s opposite the
inn . . .”
“I know that,” Studer had broken in as an unpleasant
shiver ran down his spine. A July night had come to
mind on which a stranger had foretold this murder . . .
“Oh, you know that, do you? Who is that on the line?”
“Sergeant Studer. The chief superintendent’s busy.”
“Ah, Studer! Good. Excellent. Come at once! I’ll be
waiting for you at the cemetery.”
Studer gave another sigh, shrugged his powerful
shoulders, scratched his thin, pointed nose and cursed
silently. It would be just the same as always, of course.
He wasn’t a celebrated criminologist, although in earlier
years he had studied a lot. An intrigue had cost him
his position as chief inspector with the Bern City Police;
he’d had to start from the bottom again with the cantonal
force and had quickly risen to the rank of sergeant.
Yet, although he’d been demoted, although he
had enemies, he was always the one who was sent when
there was a difficult case. This time too. After the telephone
conversation Studer had reported to the superintendent
and mentioned what had happened that
July night. “Off you go, then, Studer. But don’t come
back until you’re sure, until the case’s solved. Right?”
“If I must . . . Cheerio.” Studer had got on his bike
and set off. The July night had been exactly four
months ago, the night when he had met the stranger
with the Swiss name of Farny. A stranger who was now
dead . . .
“You can thank your lucky stars, yes, you can thank
your lucky stars, Herr Deputy Governor, that I’m about
to retire from my practice. Otherwise you’d have a few
awkward questions to answer. You may well laugh! Putting
the whole of the cantonal police on the alarm . . .
er . . . on the alert for an obvious suicide, yes, a
That was the oldish man with the profuse blond
beard, streaked with white, round his wide mouth. The
elegant, smooth-shaven gentleman raised his hands,
clad in brown kid gloves, to ward off these accusations.
“Herr Doktor Buff, I must ask you to moderate your
tone. After all, I am here in an official capacity . . .”
“Official capacity! Hahaha! Don’t make me laugh.”
Why are the two of them speaking High German and
not dialect? Studer thought. “You say you’re an official?
Any official could see at a glance that what we have
here is a suicide, a suicide, Herr Deputy Governor.”
“A murder, Herr Doktor Buff, yes, a murder. If you
can’t even distinguish between a murder and a suicide
at your age . . .”
“At my age?! At my age?! A young mooncalf like
you! Yes, a mooncalf, I stick by that word . . . trying
to tell an old doctor like me what’s a murder and
“My instructions state that in cases of doubt an
experienced detective must always . . .”
Studer had stopped listening. A little verse crept
into his mind:
Things have happened on the Moon
That made the Mooncalf change his tune;
Honeymoon and Loondemyell
Both ran off with Mademoiselle . . .
But he called himself to order. It wasn’t respectful to
be thinking of amusing nonsense poems beside a
The body: the face of an old man, a white moustache,
drooping down over the corners of his mouth,
soft, like the skeins of silk women use for fine needlework.
Narrow, slanting eyes . . . It was the man Studer
had met during a night in July four months ago. From
the very first moment he’d called him “the Chinaman”.
While the old country doctor, looking shabby in
his threadbare overcoat, continued to argue with the
elegantly clad deputy governor, Studer recalled that
night in July for the third time that morning. And if
the memory of that remarkable experience had been
vague the first two times, now it was clear, vivid, and
he began to hear the words that had been spoken
as well . . .
With a voice that sounded like the angel of peace
as he interrupted the argument of the two fellow
countrymen, he asked in his Bernese accent, “Who is it
who’s buried here?”
It was Dr Buff who replied. “The warden of the
poorhouse lost his wife ten days ago.”
The doctor nodded. His hair was rather long at the
back and over his ears.
“Can you explain, Doctor Buff,” the deputy governor
said, “how a suicide can shoot himself in the
heart, when the bullet has not made a hole in his coat
or his jacket, not even in his shirt or waistcoat? Is that a
suicide, Sergeant? You can see for yourself, the clothes
are all buttoned up. That’s the way we found the body.
But he was shot through the heart.”
Studer nodded, his thoughts elsewhere.
“And the gun?” Dr Buff squawked. “Isn’t that the
gun next to the dead man’s hand? Isn’t that suicide?”
Studer looked at the heavy gun, a Colt that he recognized.
He nodded, nodded – and then said nothing
more for five minutes because the night of 18 July was
flickering through his mind like a film . . .
It was mere chance that Studer had stopped in Pfründisberg
that evening. He’d forgotten to fill up in
Olten, so he’d gone to the Sun Inn.
He went in. By the door in the side room was an
iron stove, gleaming silver because it had been coated
with aluminium paint. Four men were sitting round
a table playing Jass. Studer shook himself like a big
St Bernard, there was a lot of dust on his leather
jacket. He sat down in one corner. No one took any
notice. After a while he asked if you could get a can
of petrol here. One of the card players, a little old
man wearing a cardigan with linen sleeves sewn on,
said to his partner in thick dialect, “’E wants a can o’
“Hmm . . . A can o’ petrol . . .”
Silence. The room was hot and stuffy because the
windows were closed. Through the glass you could see
the green wood of the shutters. Studer was surprised
no barmaid appeared to ask him what he wanted. The
old man’s partner said, “You forgot to count the king
Studer stood up and asked the way out onto the terrace.
The room was too hot for him and, anyway, at the
card table was a skinny man with a goatee whom
Studer knew – the warden of the poorhouse in Pfründisberg,
Hungerlott by name. An unpleasant man he’d
got to know when he was a corporal in the cantonal
police and had to escort people from the police station
to Pfründisberg. That evening especially he didn’t feel
like chatting with Hungerlott.
“The corridor at the back,” said the old man – he
couldn’t miss it.
When Studer stepped out into the open air he
breathed more freely, despite the fact that it was close.
Huge clouds were squatting on the horizon, a tiny
moon, no bigger than an unripe lemon, was at its
zenith casting its sparse light over the landscape. Then
it disappeared and the only thing that was brightly lit
in the area was the ground floor of a large building
about four hundred yards from the inn. The sergeant
leaned on the balustrade and looked out over
the silent countryside; close in front of him was a
maple, the leaves on the nearest branch were so
clearly lit he could count each one. When he turned
around to see where the light was coming from, he
saw, through a window that gave onto the terrace, a
lamp and a man writing. No curtains over the
windows . . .
The man was sitting at a table with five exercise
books covered in oilcloth piled up beside his right
elbow; he was well on his way to filling the sixth book.
How did a visitor come to be writing his memoirs in a
little village like Pfründisberg?
Pfründisberg: a poorhouse, a horticultural college,
two farms. The only thing that gave the hamlet any
importance was the fact that the larger village of
Gampligen, a mile and a half away, buried its dead in
All that went through Studer’s mind as he stood at
the window watching the solitary man tirelessly writing
away in his exercise book. A white moustache hung
down over the corners of his mouth, his cheekbones
were prominent, and he had slant eyes. Before he had
exchanged a word with the stranger, Studer’s name for
him was “the Chinaman”.
The sergeant would probably not have made the
acquaintance of the man on that evening of 18 July
had he not had a slight mishap. Was it the dust from
the country lane? Was it the start of a cold? To put it
briefly, Studer sneezed.
The stranger’s reaction to this innocent sound was
remarkable. He leaped up in such a hurry that he
knocked his chair over, and his right hand went to
the side pocket of his camelhair smoking jacket. With
two rapid steps to the side he was by the window,
seeking cover in the embrasure. With his left hand
he grasped the handle of the window and flung it
open. A brief silence. Then the man asked, “Who’s
Studer stood in the bright light, his massive figure
casting a broad shadow on the balustrade.
“Me,” he said.
“Don’t be so stupid!” the stranger barked. “Will you
tell me who you are?”
The man spoke German with an English accent.
English? The odd thing was that there was something
Swiss peeking out from beneath this foreign accent,
something Studer couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Perhaps it was the stress he put on the word “will”,
which came out as “wiu”.
“Bern Cantonal Police,” the sergeant said goodhumouredly.
Studer showed it, though with a heavy heart; the
photograph on his identity card always irked him. He
felt it made him look like a lovesick sea lion.
The stranger handed it back, but that did not resolve
the situation, for the sergeant knew the man had a
revolver in his jacket pocket. The thought of being shot
in the stomach was decidedly unpleasant. The word
“laparotomy” buzzed around inside his head like an
irritating mosquito, and he breathed a sigh of relief
when the stranger finally took his right hand out of his
Now Studer asked, quietly, with excessive politeness
and in his best High German, “And now might I ask to
see your papers?”
“Surely,” the man said in English, then reverted to
He went over to the table, opened a drawer and
came back with a passport.
A Swiss passport! Issued in the name of James Farny,
place of origin: Gampligen, Bern Canton, born 13
March 1878, issued in Toronto, Canada, renewed 1903
in Shanghai, renewed in Sydney, renewed in Tokyo,
renewed . . . renewed . . . renewed in 1928 in Chicago
USA . . . crossed into Switzerland 18 February 1931 in
Geneva . . .
“So you’ve been back in Switzerland for five months,
Herr Farny?” Studer asked.
“Five months, yes. Wanted to see my home country,
the Heimat, once more.” There it was again, that sound.
The Chinaman said “He-imat”, separating the “e” and
“i”, while an Englishman would surely have made
it a long “ai”. “Are you a . . .?” He was clearly struggling
with his German. “A . . . senior police officer?
A . . . what do you call them, an . . . inspector and not
just a plain constable?” The last word was in English
“Sergeant,” said Studer good-humouredly.
“Then you would be called in when there’s a murder,
“You see, it is possible that I will be murdered,” said
the Chinaman. “Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow,
perhaps in a month’s time. It might perhaps take even
longer. You’ll have a drink?
A dead man on a grave and two