(Editor’s note: This is the 95th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s submission comes from Patrick Lennon. The British author of Corn Dolls, Steel Witches, and last year’s Cut Out, he is also a contributor to The Rap Sheet.)
The idea of a 200-page crime novel written and set in 1930s Switzerland may not initially be the kind of thing that gets you placing a next-day order through Amazon. Personally, when a copy of Thumbprint caught my eye in the excellent Heffers bookshop in Cambridge, England, I began reading with a certain wariness--and damn it, I like short books, and I’m even a Swiss citizen myself. Reading the brief bio of the author, Friedrich Glauser, however, made me think I was encountering something quite unusual.
Glauser was not your typical shy, quiet Swiss guy. A schizophrenic with a lifelong addiction to opiates, he progressed from reform school to prison--he escaped and was recaptured--and then to a series of mental hospitals and detention centers where he spent the bulk of his life in the 1920s and ’30s. Along the way, he worked as a waiter, forester, and coal miner; he also found time to join the French Foreign Legion for two years in North Africa. Thumbprint was originally published in 1936, and Glauser died two years later at age 42. With that kind of background, you might expect Glauser’s work to be highly distinctive, with dark undertones--and you would not be wrong.
Thumbprint follows Swiss police Sergeant Studer, a sardonic middle-aged career cop, called to investigate the killing of a traveling grocery salesman, Wedelin Witschi. The deceased has been shot at close range from behind, in a remote forest. Fortunately, a man from a nearby village confesses to the murder, and the investigation seems well-ordered and perfectly under control, much like the popular image of Switzerland itself.
Studer, however, is the kind of awkward city cop who doesn’t trust country folk--and as he arrives in the charming village of Gerzenstein, he begins to notice things which leave him uneasy. To some extent, these are the items you might expect to find in any detective narrative from the 1930s: the arrangement of pine needles on the dead man’s coat is all wrong, and why exactly was he keeping a supply of pistol cartridges hidden in his living room? But--and I think this is what makes Glauser so distinctive--there is a tightening atmosphere, among all those people who knew the victim, which is seedy, corrupt, and brutal.
Witschi was a heavy drinker, to the extent that the mayor of Gerzenstein was planning “to send him away to a labour camp”--so much for that legendary Swiss democracy. The village is a tangle of extended families and secretive grudges, and there is an air of sweaty, furtive sexuality to some of the relationships which Studer uncovers. Glauser maintains this balance superbly well, between the mechanics of an orthodox police book and the fevered ambiance of corruption. For example, the author is excellent at “orthodox” dialogue and the resentful little exchanges between officials, which sound very modern. Again, the “traditional” element of mystery, when a door in the dead man’s garden is found to have 15 bullet holes in it--what the hell was Witschi doing, practicing on himself?--goes hand in hand with the uncovering of his personal financial situation. He had recently lost all of his investments in a banking crash (which sounds pretty familiar) and has been living from a series of IOUs linked to life-insurance policies, which are being traded around the village from one neighbor to another. Glauser ramps up the final stages of his tale by giving Studer a fever to struggle against, and again this adds to the slightly hallucinogenic feeling without being overdone.
That’s not to say that this book works perfectly today. Even as a fellow countryman, some of the references to the paraphernalia of Swiss life in the 1930s left me confused, and there is a clunky datedness to sections of the story (“What Studer most wanted to do was to stroke the girl’s hair to calm her, like calming down a dog.”). But most readers will forgive this, considering the distance of time and place of Thumbprint’s writing.
I know the “dark underside of the small town” concept is a well-used one (I used it myself in my first book), but in Glauser’s hands it takes on an unusual energy. In terms of atmosphere, there is something about the narrow streets and the houses with “Welcome, Guest” in Gothic script over the door, coupled with the gloomy interiors of prison cells and magistrates’ offices, which evoke Glauser’s near-contemporary, Franz Kafka. And in the maze of unhealthy relationships and fraudulent trade-offs which have led to Witschi’s death, there is something of Kafka’s solitary man falling into the grip of the machine.
Today, Friedrich Glauser remains a highly admired cult figure in Europe, especially in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria--and one of Germany’s most prestigious crime-writing prizes is now called the Glauser Award. But Glauser and his books remain comparatively little-known in the English-speaking world. The slim little translation which I picked up in Cambridge was the first-ever publication of Thumbprint in English (released in 2004 by Bitter Lemon Press), and since then a further four of his eight novels have been translated and are in print: In Matto’s Realm, The Spoke, The Chinaman, and Fever. (They all feature Sergeant Studer). I would recommend starting with Thumbprint and experiencing some superbly furtive and corrupt village life.
READ MORE: Back in 2008, Peter Rozovsky of the Detectives Beyond Borders blog posted his two-part interview with Mike Mitchell, Friedrich Glauser’s translator. Part I is here, Part II can be enjoyed here.