I spent a lot of my working life from 1998 to 2018 in Basel. I haven’t been there in three years now and I miss it. When I found that one of the best-known crime series about Basel had finally been translated into English, I was delighted to have the opportunity to make a virtual trip back to the city.
Basel is a city of strong, overlapping affiliations, from the Army, from University and from the Fastnacht Cliques that power the carnival, all of which exist in parallel to the world occupied by the large number of foreigners living and working in the city. I’d expected finally to get an insider’s view of Basel as I tagged along with a senior police officer solving a crime. I recognised every place described, including the bars and clubs and it was a Basel I hadn’t access to but not the one I’d been expecting. This was a tour through Basel’s marginalised inhabitants, a category that included the main policeman Kommissär Peter Hunkeler.
Hunkeler is not a Basel insider, at least not in the establishment sense. He’s original from Aarau, another Kanton and one that the ruling cliques in Basel-Stadt are likely to look down on as overly rustic. His home is not in Basel but over the border in Alsace, a place that has been alternately German and French but never Swiss. He’s a senior officer in a job-for-life police force yet he has not built alliances or integrated himself into the hierarchy. He gets on better with the police in the more rural Basel-Lands than he does with his own superiors. He spends his leisure time in the grubbier parts of Basel, the parts that have seen wave after wave of immigrants from Turkey, Albania and the Balkans. These people are his community of choice and even there, he is an outsider.
Hunkeler was not a man I found it easy to like but he was a man I completely believe in. Being in his company and seeing Basel through his eyes was fascinating. He is not your standard-issue detective. Not even your standard-issue Swiss detective. He’s a man in his sixties who is still a hedonist who is more comfortable in the demimonde than in the police station. He’s very familiar with and accepting of Basel’s sex industry. He drinks a lot and has a passion for food which is matched by his appetite for poetry and philosophy.
Hunkeler’s personality isn’t just a variant on local colour, used to give the book flavour, it’s central to how the book works. He’s not the kind of detective who draws timelines, maintains murder boards, follows close and rounds up and interrogates suspects. He is like a hunter in a hide, watching, waiting, learning the ways of his prey and becoming an accepted part of their landscape up until the moment that he strikes. He’s also not a rule follower. Watching him use his unique investigation method, I’d just reached the point where I was thinking, ‘In the UK, this man would be fired – hell, I’d fire him’ when his boss suspends him and early retirement seems to be in his future. That development increased my belief in the story. It also told me that Hunkeler was on to something.
I won’t go into the plot other than to say that Hunkeler is investigating the killing of one of his drinking companions. A man who Hunkeler, not entirely sober, discovers on a bench near their regular drinking place, with his throat cut and with his earlobe sliced open where a diamond stud should be.
It was fascinating to meet the people that Hunkeler knows and go to the places he frequents. The people and places felt very real. I also enjoyed the poems that crop up throughout the book, especially ‘Shipped Oars’ which I’d never seen before.
I was surprised to find that the plot pivots on one of the more shameful things in Switzerland’s recent history. I won’t say what because it gives too much of the plot away but it hits on an aspect of Swiss culture that’s hard to see when you first arrive, the strong pressure on people to fit in and the consequences for those who can’t or won’t adapt to fit.
This pressure to conform is often beneficial. Switzerland is a small country with even smaller Cantons. Everybody knows everybody else, physical and social mobility is low by comparison to the UK. To get along with your neighbours you have to follow the rules. This enables the Swiss to find consensus amongst Kantons that speak different languages and practice different flavours of Christianity and gives a path for assimilating foreigners. It also produces a low tolerance for deviance from the norm that has occasionally resulted in very bad things happening. The best example I can think of was the process of Administrative Detention, used between 1942 and 1981 to lock away, without trial or appeal and for an indefinite period, unmarried pregnant minors, teenagers who were seen as difficult or workshy or just disruptive to the village they lived in so that they could be re-educated. The Swiss government has since apologised and offered reparation. The shameful act at the heart of this story is similar.
I hope that Bitterlemon Press translate more of this series soon. I’d like to see more of Hunkeler’s Basel.
Hansjörg Schneider is a Swiss writer, dramatist and philosopher, based in Basel, who is best known for his award-winning ten-book Kommissär Peter Hunkeler crime books. The series started in 1998. Four of the books have been adapted to film/TV.
‘The Basel Killings’ (original title ‘Hunkeler macht Sachen‘) won the 2005 Best Novel category in the prestigious Friedrich Glauser Prize for German crime fiction. It is the sixth book in the series and the first to be translated into English.