Translated by Astrid Freuler — Following the Basel Killings and Silver Pebbles, The Murder of Anton Livius is the third novel in the Inspector Peter Hunkeler series by the Swiss playwright and author Hansjörg Schneider. Originally written in the Schweizerdeutsch dialect, the novels give crime fiction lovers a rare chance to step into a part of the world from which there are few crime novels in translation. And step into the Swiss city of Basel you will, for one of the great strengths of this novel is how vividly the author paints the city, its culture, its inhabitants and the neighbouring region of Alsace, just across the border into France.
Cross-border activity really is the hook here too, and Schneider’s set-up is masterful. The city of Basel butts right up to France and on the border the author has situated a set of allotments in French territory. Through the allotments it is possible for French people to enter Switzerland, and vice versa, without detection. It’s New Year’s Eve and the fireworks have scarcely concluded before Peter Hunkeler is called out to the allotments. An elderly man has been discovered hanging from a meat hook with a bullet hole through is head.
Much of the tension in the novel is derived via the location of the corpse. Anton Flückiger was a Basel resident, but the allotments themselves fall under French legal jurisdiction. A joint investigation is set up between a rather uptight Swiss team of detectives, and a crew of impatient and arrogant French investigators. Hunkeler is there to contribute and cuts a lone wolf figure while the two factions compete with one another and the Swiss press to uncover clues, discover the motive and identify the killer.
A veil of mystery surrounds Flückiger. His blood was full of Viagra on the night of his death and even at his age he had a reputation as a ladies’ man in the bars and cafes nearby. It’s revealed early on that his real name was Anton Livius, but his background is difficult to trace. Prior to gaining residence in Switzerland, where had he lived and what did he do? Then there’s the meat smuggling he’s been doing via the allotment shed he was found in. Under the floorboards a sizeable portion of beef is discovered, bound for the Swiss market, where prices are higher than in France. Could his black marketeering be the reason for his murder, or was Flückiger involved in a conflicts going on between the gardeners? As the story progresses, various acts of vandalism occur and much worse – especially if you’re a duck or a rabbit.
Getting to know the allotment holders gives Hunkeler the opportunity to frequent the shops, bars and cafes around the allotments and indulge his taste for coffee, beer and wine, Armagnac and, of course, food of all description. Every few pages, it seems, he’s tucking into a sausage, some broiled beef, and he even samples kangaroo steaks with smoked liver. It is the middle of winter, after all, so Hunkeler must keep his energy up as he talks to the men and women who knew Flückiger and the potential suspects.
You will get the feeling that veteran cop Hunkeler is slowing down, reflecting on his life and trying to take in a peaceful view of the world around him. He chats quite easily with most of the people he meets, but then the pressure isn’t really on him to solve the case. However, his quiet persistence – plus a not-strictly-official foray into Alsace – renders several clues and a great deal of background information. A story unfolds going back to 1943, when France was occupied the Nazis. As the Wehrmacht tried to conscript young Frenchmen to fight on the Eastern Front, some of them fled to Switzerland. Those who were caught were dealt with by the SS and that story has become local folklore.
Apparently the author researched these events in order to bring this sore point in Alsatian history into his story, but to find out how it connects to the victim, you’ll have to read the book. However, the more you learn about Flückiger, the harder it is to sympathise with him. Perhaps this is why it’s difficult to fully engage with the mystery itself as well. The Murder of Anton Livius is a police procedural but rarely does the pace quicken. There are moments when the tension and suspense do ramp up, but when this does happen the outcome is often comedic or a red herring, and the resolution of the case feels a bit mundane given the interesting piece of the puzzle we’re given.
What is enjoyable, and what makes the book highly readable, is the tangible milieu Hanjörg Schneider creates around the mystery. The history, stories, customs and traditions of men and women in Basel and Alsace become part of this painting. Wounds felt down the generations still fester. Amongst the melancholy of a snowy and shadowy winter, Hunkeler seems to relish the culture and his conversations with the often peculiar characters he meets – from retired old Swiss dairy maids to firebrand Alsatian nationalists. There’s a lot of feeling in this novel, but it’s not all connected to the mystery.
Bitter Lemon Press
CFL Rating: 3 Stars