We move seamlessly from Austria to the eastern regions of Switzerland in Appenzell with Friedrich Glauser’s Die Speiche (The Spoke) – previously published under the title Krock & Co. You can find an English translation of it (and other Studer novels) by Mike Mitchell with Bitter Lemon Press.
This is the fifth novel (or novella, really at 134 pages) featuring the genial Wachtmeister (Sergeant) Jakob Studer, and the first one to be commissioned by a journal in 1937. Glauser was sure it would turn his fortune around and that his work would finally start to sell. However, it meant that he had to cut down descriptions and unessential elements and focus solely on the plot, as he complained in letters to friends. His role model was Simenon with his ability to knock out Maigret novels in six weeks. But Glauser was no Maigret and he struggled with deadlines, kept rewriting this work and in the end considered it a failure. The edition that I read, published by Metro Unionsverlag in Zürich in 1999, is based on the original manuscript rather than the published feuilleton version, reintroducing some of the atmospheric descriptions and dialogues.
Studer is a middle-aged policeman, who should by rights have been a chief inspector or higher by now, but was demoted to sergeant because of political insubordination. So you know at once that he is a man of principles, a committed investigator who will stop at nothing to get to the truth – but in this book we see him also as a family man and get an insight into his countryside childhood. He is very human, and solves the case mostly by interacting with the people around him, relying on gut instinct, eating and drinking well, and getting other policemen in Paris or Mannheim to do the research for him. (That does remind me of Maigret, although there are also hints of Sherlock Holmes in the way Studer works with shortcuts in logic.)
The plot is as follows: Sergeant Studer is in an Appenzell village for the wedding of his daughter. The body of a visiting clerk from a St Gallen law firm is found behind the inn run by a former childhood friend of Studer’s. The murder weapon is a sharpened bicycle spoke, which points the finger of blame to the bicycle repairman whose workshop is right next door to the inn. A little too convenient, is what Studer thinks. So, although he is supposedly on holiday, he sends his daughter and wife back home, keeps his new son-in-law (also a policeman) behind to help, and decides to investigate matters himself.
The investigation itself lost me a little bit, with lots of names cropping up, and many events taking place off-stage. But I wasn’t reading it for the plot. What Glauser does so well is recreate the feel for a place and its people, as well as the relationship between the characters, often through dialogue. There is one particularly satisfying scene, where he is interviewing a possible suspect in a barn/workshop and a piglet, a sheep, a goat and other animals cuddle up to them for warmth, in something resembling a nativity scene.
The author was somewhat worried that he might not be accurate in rendering the feel and dialect of the local area, since Studer was from the Bern area of Switzerland. The author himself was born in Vienna, and was only sent to Switzerland at the age of 12, after trying to run away from his school in Austria repeatedly. The novella itself is written mostly in ‘high German’ but with typical Swiss mannerisms: the use of diminutives in ‘li’ for instance, or the use of the definite article – what’s worse, the neutral article ‘das’ in front of a girl’s name – das Anni, instead of die Anni, or Jakob Studer becoming Köbu for his friends and family. However, the locals do use some dialect on occasion, and to me it sounds just about the right amount to add to the local colour, but not confuse the reader. I am not sure, however, how to render that in English!
Glauser was very hard on himself and his writing, so no one would be more surprised than him to know that nowadays there is a prestigious prize in Swiss crime literature named after him. It is a terrible shame we lost him so soon, it would have been interesting to see what else he might have written during and after the Second World War.