Genre round-up — the best new thrillers
From spies, secrets and a Stasi ‘Romeo’ in cold war Berlin to a dangerous haul of diamonds in Basel : “Silver Pebbles, translated by Mike Mitchell, is the second work in English by Swiss author Hansjörg Schneider featuring Inspector Peter Hunkeler. The “silver pebbles” are diamonds, carried by a courier whom Hunkeler is waiting to arrest at Basel station. But the courier flushes them down a public toilet, to be found by Erdogan Civil, a Turkish sewer worker. Riches beckon, but so does danger. Hunkeler, like all the best fictional cops, is wry and cynical but not bitter. His investigation soon brings him into contact with dark and powerful forces. Basel may be Swiss, but like all border cities it’s anything but squeaky clean, especially in this fast-paced, gritty story.”----Financial Times
“This prequel to last year’s The Basel Killings begins when a Lebanese drug mule from Frankfurt flushes a consignment of diamonds down a station lavatory before Inspector Peter Hunkeler can arrest him. A Turkish sewer worker thinks his dreams have come true when he finds them — he’ll be able to return to his wife and kids and open a hotel in his hometown — but his Swiss girlfriend is determined not to lose him. However, the mule’s employers want the rocks back at any cost. The drugs network reaches into the highest echelons of society yet Hunkeler’s craven superiors will not allow him to go there. The furious inspector concludes he is nothing more than a muzzled watchdog that can growl but not bite. It’s hard to believe this punchy procedural was first published in German in 1993. Favourite sentence: ‘Anyone who knows the snoring habits of a person, Hunkeler thought, isn’t alone, and then said softly: Old goat that I am.’” ---Times Crime Club
“Silver Pebbles continues a wonderful series of 1990s crime novels by Swiss writer Hansjorg Schneider, now at last translated into elegant English by Mike Mitchell. It’s set in Basel, where Inspector Peter Hunkeler spends his days hating being a cop, and increasingly convinced he’s on the wrong side. The case of a migrant worker who accidentally comes into an illegal fortune, however, does capture Hunkeler’s attention. Can he solve the case fast enough to save two innocent lives? There’s a rare lack of ostentation in Schneider’s writing that highlights the drama of his narratives.” --Morning Star
"A new case for Detective Inspector Peter Hunkeler of the Basel police force is to be welcomed with open arms. There’s a lot of fun to be had between these pages and a decent adventure that chimes – this has a distinct Swiss feel. Last year’s English debut for Schneider, The Basel Killings, introduced us to Hunkeler, already a bit hit across continental Europe for many years: we were missing out until now. He’s a detective going to seed, a little too fond of a drink and a night out, he’s been worn down by life but still retains his essential savvy and a wry sense of humour that gets him through the night.
This is only the second Hunkeler novel in English and yet it already feels like Peter Hunkeler is an old friend. Now that we are privy to the party long may it continue, fortunately there are eight more novels out there. Schneider’s witty but hard edged police procedurals bring us a flavour of the Cosmopolitan nature of Basel society, something rarely glimpsed before in crime fiction. Bitter Lemon Press are to be applauded for consistently finding and publishing international mysteries of real quality, if this is your bag check out their catalogue. The first Hunkeler novel was published in 1993 but the English debut The Basel Killings was not the first chronologically in the series. It was, however, a perfect introduction in that it best displayed Hunkeler’s character. Now returning in Silver Pebbles, investigating an earlier case, it’s intriguing to see how this man will morph into the mature detective. His love life for instance is beginning to show signs of the complications to come.
So on with the case. The Swiss border police are conducting a routine inspection of passports on the Frankfurt to Basel intercity as the train approaches the border. Guy Kayat has a valid passport but he’s up to no good and he panics when he sees the officials. As a Lebanese man he’s faced racism before and this is one of those moments when the officials might just get over zealous, search him and find his stash of diamonds. Getting caught would be a personal nightmare but these are tough times for his bosses too, in the middle of a gang war they can’t afford the loss of his cargo. The stones come from drug money, they are the easiest way to get big sums across borders. When Kayat runs away from the police there’s nowhere to go, he winds up in a toilet where he hides the stones, use your imagination as to where. When the officials catch up with him they are suspicious of his behaviour but his papers check out so they leave him alone.
Meanwhile, detective inspector Hunkeler is rushing to the Badischer station as fast as the traffic will allow. Other officers are already there following a tip from the German police about a courier on the intercity train. When he arrives he recognizes the courier, Kayat, instantly, but as they close in a Swiss man gets in the way of the arrest. Kayat makes it to the toilet before he is finally taken into custody. By the time they search him he has nothing on him or in him. Hunkeler has no choice but to let Kayat go and place him under surveillance.
Erdogan Civil is a seasonal worker for the Basel sewerage company. The wages here are thirty times what he gets in Istanbul but he has plans, he won’t be doing this all his life. He’s about to finish his shift when an emergency job comes in, a blockage at Badischer station. Half an hour’s work, he’s anxious to see his girlfriend, Erika, so he’s annoyed but can’t refuse the boss. Perhaps it’s fate, among the detritus in the blocked pipe are the Silver Pebbles, forty-two of them, and when he realises what they are he collects them all carefully. The day he can pack up work has just got a lot closer. Erika Waldis is one of the locals who welcomed refugee community and she fell for Erdogan. She points out the owners of the diamonds are probably not nice people and they aren’t just going to just let the stones vanish. Not that flushing them down the sewer makes much sense. Erika urges Erdogan to give them back but she’s fiercely loyal to her beau so she goes along with his plan to convert them to cash. A failed attempt to sell two of the stones indicates that the couple will need to be careful. Erika is right, gangsters don’t give up easy on a fortune in diamonds, and if the pair leave a trail it will followed.
Hunkeler isn’t one for being taken for a fool either, he’s going follow the stones too. Cops, crooks and the two ‘innocents’ with an eye on the main chance converge. This story has elements of chase, procedural and social commentary. Pleasing for cosy and more hard edged crime fans alike. Hunkeler is reminiscent of Wallander and Rebus, a little jaded, a bit rebellious and always independent with a strong intuition. The style is reminiscent of elements of earlier Swiss crime novelists Glauser and Durrenmatt work. Essentially a quick and easy read that really satisfies." --NB Magazine
"Silver Pebbles is the second book in the Inspector Peter Hunkeler series to be deftly translated into English by Mike Mitchell. It finds the Basel police inspector a little older, a little wiser, and a little more incensed at the shortcomings of the lawmakers and lawbreakers he has to deal with (who are sometimes one and the same). Yet it also finds him a little more patient as he copes with the loss of a haul of diamonds, the profits from drug sales. Tipped off by the German police, Hunkeler is waiting for a mule to arrive in Basel from Frankfurt, but the mule gives the inspector the slip and flushes the diamonds down a station toilet into the Basel sewers, where they become lodged in a blocked side-pipe. Enter Erdogan, a Turkish ‘sewer rat’ who, having been sent down to free up the blockage on his evening off, discovers the diamonds; bingo! his dreams of buying a small hotel back home seem to be about to come true. This, however, is not music to his Swiss girlfriend’s ears: she knows he has a wife and family back in Turkey, and now that he can go back permanently, their comfortable, convenient love affair in Basel looks set to hit the buffers. Meanwhile, the mule faces his own problem: how to get the diamonds back before the drug dealers bring his career to a violent end. And so the stage is set for what is less a novel of painstaking detection than a gripping, slow-burn thriller, which carries you with it inexorably towards its messy outflow. Hunkeler is pilloried by the Public Prosecutor for screwing up at the station – but he knows full well that the small-time crooks who do the dirty work are doing it for important members of Basel society, who are untouchable simply because of who they are. And Hunkeler is sick of it:
‘… whenever you set about trying to identify the people behind the drug trafficking and drag them out into the light … [you] were called off by the high-ups. For they were men of honour … members of boards of directors, old buddies of public prosecutors …’
He reflects that being a policeman isn’t about helping the people who really need it, but just being ‘a destroyer of people … a well-drilled watchdog … showing his teeth at every nod from above.’ And having spotted the ‘Culture for Basel’ committee – the archetypes of those high-ups – conferring in the art gallery, planning ‘World in Song’ week, discussing shepherd choirs in the Caucasus and the herd calls of the Tuareg, his fury reaches boiling point: ‘I’ve just seen a young woman lying in the snow in Rheingasse, with death written all over her face. And no one lifted a finger. Is that what’s normal in this town now?’ But, as a policeman, he knows that he‘s fated to be on the side of those in power.
So much then for the great and the good. But what about the bad and the ugly? Hunkeler has to find the diamonds before the drug mule does. He settles down to a watch and wait game; he knows that probing and asking too many questions will alert everyone involved, prompting them to vanish. Proaction won’t work; he just has to be fit and ready to react when they get too confident, or too rattled, and make a mistake. The urge to do something is gnawing at those Hunkeler has his eyes on: Erdogan’s girlfriend, Erika, is determined to keep him beside her, because ‘her love for [him] was only possible outside Turkey … here in Basel, in [her] apartment.’ The diamonds are a clear threat to that. Guy Kayat, the mule, knows he’s expendable: the police didn’t want him, they wanted the man who was to receive the diamonds. And more importantly, the tip-off meant he’d been betrayed: “… some high-up in the drugs business was trying to put Kayat’s boss out of business. It meant … a war … between two cartels …” – a war that could destroy him. The pressures are becoming unsustainable … and everyone knows it. Silver Pebbles is a short novel and a compulsive read: don’t be surprised if you devour it in one go!"----ELN Riveting Reviews
“First lines: The Frankfurt-Basel Intercity – a sleek, streamlined train – was crossing the Upper-Rhine plain. It was the middle of February, and there were fingers of snow along the bare branches of the vines going up the slope to the east. I read Silver Pebbles at the end of last year, thanks to an advance copy from Bitter Lemon Press, and enthusiastically included it in my best-of-year round up. But I want to give the novel a bit more breathing space here in a post of its own, as it’s just out in the UK now and will be out in the US in February.
Although the Bitter Lemon website describes the novel as the second in the acclaimed ‘Inspector Peter Hunkeler’ series, it was actually the first of the novels to be published in the German-speaking world back in 1993. This makes it an especially good place to start if you’ve not yet read The Basel Killings, which came out last year. Silver Pebbles introduces us to jaded Basel police inspector Peter Hunkeler, who’s nearing retirement, and treats us to a wonderfully absorbing case.
When elegantly attired Lebanese smuggler Guy Kayat flushes some diamonds down a station toilet to evade the police, he sets off a chain of bizarre events. The diamonds are found by Erdogan Civil, a sewage worker called in to clear a blockage, who immediately thinks his dream of opening a hotel back in Turkey is about to come true. But of course, life is infinitely more complicated than that, as Erdogan’s supermarket-cashier girlfriend Erika Waldis realises straight away…
This is a very human tale, told in a way that reminded me a bit of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series – the novel has a matter-of-fact style leavened with genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour, not to mention the odd Keystone Cops moment when the police tie themselves up in knots. But it’s Erika who is the slow-burning star of the show, with a perceptiveness and intellect to match the police inspector’s own.
Silver Pebbles still feels remarkably fresh today, probably because it has some universal truths to share with (middle-aged) readers. It’s no surprise to find that Schneider is a famous playwright and essayist back in Switzerland, or that his 10-novel crime series has won major awards such as the Friedrich Glauser Prize. And translator Mike Mitchell does a particularly lovely job of capturing the novel’s humour and Inspector Hunkeler’s grumpiness.”—Mrs Peabody Investigates
“I’ve been reading a lot of very impressive international crime novels recently, and Silver Pebbles by Hansjörg Schneider is yet another. A die-hard fan of crime fiction for decades, I’ve purposely expanded my crime fiction reading beyond the borders of my own country. So it delighted me when a publicist for Bitter Lemon Press offered me a copy of this book, and Schneider, a Swiss writer, and dramatist did not disappoint. While Silver Pebbles has elements of a slow-burn crime thriller, it fits best in the police procedural genre, a sub-genre of detective fiction. A police procedural differs from other cop novels. Instead of a single policeman getting called in to solve a crime and doing it alone, an entire squad cooperates to solve the crime using the methodology of detection based on real-life police work. Inevitably certain characters are more interesting or intelligent than others and get more space in a novel, but putting the bad guys away and solving the crime is a team effort.
Typically in a police procedural, someone commits murder, and a squad of police detectives gets called upon to find the killer. However, what drew my attention to Silver Pebbles was that it isn’t about a murder but a drug courier transporting a fortune in diamonds back to his employers in payment for the delivery of drugs. That fresh and creative approach is one of the things I liked best about the book. It captured my imagination and made for a more compelling premise than my usual steady diet of murder novels.
As the book unfolds, we first meet a key criminal in the story, Guy Kayat, a young Lebanese man working for a drug cartel as a drug mule and courier. Kayat is on the train from Frankfurt to Basel (a city in northwestern Switzerland on the river Rhine). In his bag, Kayat carries a fortune in perfectly cut diamonds received in payment for a delivery of narcotics which he is couriering back to his cartel bosses. Unfortunately for Kayat, the Swiss police are on to him, thanks to a tip from the German police, and a squad of detectives is waiting on him at the Basel train station. Schneider does an accomplished job painting this character for us. As the story progresses, we learn much about Kayat, why he does what he does, and what motivates him to participate in the drug trade. Once we learn about him, even though he is a criminal, it’s difficult not to feel a measure of sympathy for him.
A few pages later in the first chapter, we meet the main character, Peter Hunkeler, a detective inspector with the Basel police and the detective in charge of the squad tasked with apprehending Kayat and seizing the illicit diamonds. Hunkeler, as the protagonist, gets more space in a novel than his police colleagues, and naturally, we get a more in-depth look at his life than the lives of the other cops involved in the investigation. We see the investigation develop primarily through his eyes. In a real sense, the book often seems less concerned with solving a crime than examining the complex life, motives, strengths, and weaknesses of Hunkeler.
The biggest challenge for some readers of this book might be that the Hunkeler character seems a bit clichéd. After all, he has all the usual flaws one expects from the main character in a novel of the genre. First, he smokes and wants to quit but can’t. Second, Hunkeler struggles with his long past divorce and estrangement from his adult daughter, who remains the most important person in the world to him. Third, the detective inspector is cynical and burnt out. Fourth, he is a maverick and doesn’t get on well with his supervisor, and sometimes he drinks excessively. Finally, Hunkeler has an intimate relationship with a woman he hasn’t married, which he uses mostly for only sexual satisfaction and fulfillment of his emotional needs.
I get it. Crime novel characters must have flaws to appear like real people. As I know from personal experience, policing is a stressful job, no doubt about it. But not so stressful that every single cop hits the bottle the moment their shift ends. Yes, many police marriages don’t always survive, and divorces happen. But cop marriages can be as strong as anybody else’s. It’s one of the things that can help a police officer cope with the stress. Unfortunately, at least in the opinion of readers not devoted to the genre, crime fiction writers don’t always spend enough time pushing out from safety zones of the genre conventions. They believe that’s why we end up with tropes and clichés.
Alternatively, those like me who are devoted to the genre aren’t particularly bothered by reliance on the usual conventions, even if they might agree that sticking to them results in tropes and clichés. We sort of expect that from a police procedural. And from an author’s perspective, sticking to the conventions still sells books. Just consider an American super-star of cop novels, Michael Connelly, whose Harry Bosch is in the pantheon of all-time great police detectives. If you know much about Bosch, you know he shares all the same flaws with Hunkeler.
To be fair, there is far more to Hunkeler than the predictable flaws we’ve come to expect from police detective main characters. He possesses characteristics that make him unique and multi-layered. Examples include his political and social world views and his disdain for capitalists and politicians, many of whom Hunkeler regards as the true criminals while acknowledging their wealth and positions makes them virtually untouchable. Also, while Hunkeler enforces drug laws, he feels a high degree of sympathy for drug addicts. All in all, I find Hunkeler a compelling, multi-faceted, and believable character.
As much as I liked Hunkeler, the character in the book which most captured my attention and I like most is Erika, the Swiss girlfriend of the Turkish sewage worker, Erdogan, who eventually finds the discarded diamonds in a sewer pipe beneath the Basel train station.
Erika might be considered a only a minor character in the overall scheme of the novel. She is a single, childless, middle-aged woman, past her prime, who works as a supermarket cashier and desperately clings to the relationship of mutual convenience that she shares with Erdogan. Yet it is with Erika I believe Schneider’s expertise with drawing realistic, believable, and complex characters shows through most brilliantly. Moreover, the crafting of Erika is a virtuoso performance. We feel immediate empathy for Erika and sympathy for her difficult life while at the same time feeling astonishment upon learning she is a woman of grace, character, strength, and wisdom.
If you’re unfamiliar with the works of Hansjörg Schneider, as I was before reading this book, I think it fair to say that stylistically, Silver Pebbles reads quite like a Henning Mankell Wallander novel. Even those who haven’t read Mankell have likely seen the popular films based on his Wallander character. Silver Pebbles isn’t a whodunit. Both the police and the reader know who the criminals are and what they’ve done out the outset. The story is about the systematic attempts by the police to solve the crime by bringing the bad guys to justice and how the criminals try to get away. The book has its suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat moments, but at times the pace of the story lags as we wait for something to happen, some catalyst to reignite the action. However, that is the nature of the police procedural, which seeks to mirror the realism of actual police investigations that play out similarly. The police do not solve crimes in an hour, as television dramas portray.
I found Silver Pebbles a gripping and entertaining read and came away impressed with Schneider’s obvious and considerable talent as a crime writer. He is the author of several highly acclaimed plays and the bestselling Hunkeler crime series, with ten titles published. The Basel Killings, the first in series published in English, was awarded The Friedrich Glauser Prize, Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction literary award. Silver Pebbles is the second book in the series to be published in English. I found not a single awkward passage in the book, revealing that translator Mike Mitchell did an admirable job with the translation. Those of us who enjoy reading novels from international authors first published in other languages always appreciate that. If you’re a devoted fan of detective fiction and police procedural novels, you’re sure to like this book. I truly loved the ironic denouement. The resolution was both appropriate and most satisfying.” ----CrimeFictionCritic
SILVER PEBBLES WAS AN EASY AND ENTERTAINING READ, THANKS TO ITS VIVID DESCRIPTIONS AND SEAMLESS TRANSLATION BY MIKE MITCHELL.
“Silver Pebbles is the first crime novel I've read that's set in Switzerland, giving interesting insight into the country and culture. This was an easy and entertaining read, thanks to its vivid descriptions and seamless translation by Mike Mitchell. Unlike many police procedurals, the book doesn't feature a murder investigation. Instead, it provides a fresh approach by following police as they close in on a diamond-smuggling drug mule who has managed to become separated from his sparkling haul. The book focuses heavily on the main character, Inspector Hunkeler, with all his flaws, as he embarks on a search for the diamonds before the drug mule finds them again. It also follows the sewage worker who discovers the diamonds stuck in a blocked pipe - and his mistress, who has a few ideas of what to do with them. As expected, none of the characters have an easy ride. Silver Pebbles is a short read, but there's plenty going on and a lot of shifty characters, turning it into an (almost) one-sitting read for me.”---Love Reading
“Hansjorg Schneider is perhaps an unfamiliar name to most British readers but in Europe, the Swiss journalist-turned-playwright-turned-crime-writer, now aged 82, is a well-respected figure, not the least for his creation of his detective hero Inspector Peter Hunkeler of the Basel police.
Silver Pebbles [Bitter Lemon] is the second Hunkeler book to be translated, although it was first published in German back in 1993, and concerns a streetwise Lebanese ‘drug mule’ who is almost caught with a consignment of diamonds at Basel train station. Thinking quickly, he flushes the diamonds down a public toilet only for them to be found by a Turkish immigrant working for the city’s sanitation department, somewhat to the dismay of his unofficial Swiss wife. Inspector Hunkeler follows this rather soggy trail to find the drug dealers who want their diamonds back although at times with the cynicism of a man who ‘had been in the police too long to worry about personal failure’.
Hunkeler has been compared to Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, though there are no wreaths of pipe smoke or constant breaks for a quick digestif. After all, Basel is not Paris, it is cleaner, greyer and harder. Perhaps that’s the point.” Shotsmag
“A neat novel created by a master storyteller. Diamonds are being smuggled into Switzerland from Germany but the smuggler is intercepted and he deftly drops his stash down the toilet. The glittering stones land in the sewer system where Erdogan Civil happens to be busy unblocking an underground junction in the system. He discovers the shiny items and recognises them for what they are, and, of course, hides them away. They now belong to him. His partner Erika, however, is grimly aware that purloining a stash such as this is not without significant dangers.
Inevitably, the smuggling ring cannot simply ignore the disappearance of their precious property and their operative is soon outwitting the police to retrieve the diamonds. Inspector Peter Hunkeler is on the trail of the gang members.
It is very much a caper around Basel and environs and all the while the snow is falling, clogging the thoroughfares. The icy coldness makes an excellent backdrop to story. The story is set when it was still common to smoke in trains and restaurants and political correctness was perhaps just in its infancy.
…. a very readable novel with delightful European flair”.---TripFiction
“The second novel in the police procedural mystery series featuring Basel police inspector Peter Hunkeler, "Silver Pebbles" is the story of an elegant young Lebanese man carrying diamonds in his bag who is on the train from Frankfurt to Basel -- a drug mule on the return journey. At the Basel train station, Hunkeler is waiting for him after a tipoff from the German police. The courier manages to get to the station toilet and flushes the stones away. Erdogan, a young Turkish sewage worker, finds the diamonds 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 older Swiss girl-friend Erika, employed at a supermarket checkout counter, the stones 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 stones are the only way to get to the people behind the drug trade. They turn out to include not only the bottom-feeding drug gangs but bankers and politicians very high up the Basel food chain.
Critique: Of special note is that no one gets killed in "Silver Pebbles", an unusual and compelling story of ordinary people accidentally caught in a vortex of crime. A riveting read throughout, and ably translated into English for an American readership by Mike Mitchell, "Silver Pebbles" by Hansjorg Schneider is especially recommended for community library Mystery/Suspense collections. For the personal reading lists of dedicated crime fiction fans, "Silver Pebbles" is also readily available in a digital book format.” -–MidWestern Book Reviews