Portrait Of A Swiss Crime
«The trouble with this screamingly smug little country», said my Aunt Emma, «is that nothing ever happens!» - So begins the last crime novel by writer, painter and hotelier Paul Townend.
Very soon, however, a murdered woman is recovered from a deep ravine. The suspicion of the local population and the authorities quickly turns to the unpopular foreigners. Are young guest workers involved in this crime?
The exciting, straightforward and witty story takes place at the beginning of the 1970s in central Switzerland. Martin, the son of the mayor, and his aunt are actively involved in the investigation.
Paul Townend (1925 - 2009)
spent his childhood and youth in Eastbourne and London, served in the Second World War as an officer in the Royal Naval Air Force. After the war, he travelled to Central Switzerland as a tour guide. In Obwalden, he ran a hotel on Lake Sarnen together with his wife Xenia Dansky. Outside the tourist season he worked as a ghost writer for a famous British crime novelist, published four of his own crime novels and painted numerous watercolours of Swiss landscapes.
His greatest book success was The Man On The End Of The Rope (1960). The gripping crime novel was published as a series by a Dutch newspaper in the early 1960s. Thanks to Daniel Anker, a well-known historian, journalist and author of alpine guides and mountain books, his bestseller was translated into German by Emanuel Balsiger and reissued in 2001 as Eigerjagd.
His last crime novel, Portrait Of A Swiss Crime (presumably written around the year 1973), thought lost until now, came to light this spring. His son will edit it, translate it into German and publish it with Amazon.
Reading sample, page 1 - 10
"The trouble with this screamingly smug little country", said my Aunt Emma, "is that nothing ever happens".
It was a good try. However, we were all too drowsy after a heavy Sunday lunch to pick up the gauntlet. Mother surreptitiously stifled a yawn and Father looked at his watch. His face brightened a bit and he looked around for our waitress.
"Fräulein!" he called.
The young woman was an impossible distance away, but I had reckoned without the formidable carrying power of Father's voice. A few wine glasses shivered and people at nearby tables looked up in irritation. In a moment the waitress was at our side,adding up the bill. She was not a local woman so I did not imagine she knew who Father was. I was wrong.
"Was everything to your satisfaction, Herr Gemeindepräsident?"
Father grunted contentedly and I suspect increased the size of his tip. Unlike most of his political cronies he never insisted on his title, but I fancy he did not mind hearing it.
"The food and the service were good," said Mother conversationally.
"They always are," sniffed Aunt Emma.
"And I must say I admire their table linen. It's so fresh and crisp."
"Of course. This is Switzerland. How could it be otherwise?"
Father frowned at her acidulous tone and looked at his watch again, "Time we were going. I've got a full briefcase at home."
Aunt Emma glanced at her husband as if for support, but Uncle Hubert was busy stuffing 'Heath and Heather' into his cherry-wood pipe and groping for matches in the pockets of his baggy tweed jacket.
"Well then, Hans", Aunt Emma conceded, picking up her handbag and rising to her feet, "thank you for an impeccable lunch, impeccably served. Now I will retire to the Ladies Room, which will doubtless be in impeccable condition, and there I will wash my hands on vacuum-packed soap and dry them on a towel that has been sterilised, homogenised and for all I know pasteurised …"
"What the devil d'you want, Emmi? French sanitation? A hole in the floor and two crude imprints for your feet?"
Mother left the table to follow her sister and tossed over her shoulder with glorious feminine illogic, "Really, Hans, must you pick a quarrel with Emmi just before she flies home?"
I had been expecting Uncle Hubert to join in – the glint of battle was in his eyes – but perhaps he felt he was no match against the Swiss side of the family when outnumbered by three to one. He gave us a blast of 'Heath and Heather' and marched off to the Herren.
Father looked at us in bewilderment, "Can either of you two children tell me what all that was about? I hadn't the least desire to quarrel with your aunt."
"Of course you didn't, Papi" I soothed.
"Then what the devil's got into her?"
"It happens every time," my sister explained. "Have you never noticed? She'd rather stay with us. She hates to go back to Britain."
"Then why on earth does she? We've got room enough, she can stay – ".
"The gentleman with the pipe is her husband, you know. And he does work."
"Work! You call that work? Hubert's cosy little lectures two or three times a week – "
"He's a highly-respected figure in British academic circles," Hanna protested stoutly, "When I was over with them last hols I was surprised at the hushed tones in which people spoke about him. He's said to be one of the greatest living experts on the Romantic Poets."
"Gott im Himmel! Poets!"
Father really exploded this time, and for once was aware he'd been a trifle too loud. He stubbed out his cigar with an embarassed gesture and glanced apologetically round the room. Happily Mother and Aunt Emma were in sight, coming back from the Damen. We all stood up. Father muttered to himself, "Fat lot of good the Romantic Poets ever did to the British foreign currency reserves, that's all I can say."
"Papi, there are other things in life besides foreign currency reserves," I ventured.
"Now don't you start, my lad. It's bad enough having the womenfolk ... ah, there you are, my dears. Now, if Hubert has not got lost or started to compose a sonnet in the men's lavatory, perhaps we could be making tracks for home. I've got a committee-meeting to prepare for."
"Oh not tonight, surely dear?" Mother wailed, "It's Emmi and Hubert's last evening and you promised to take them to the airport."
"Terribly sorry, dear. I met Heiri just now – it's Water Pollution and he said they can't possibly do without me. Hanna can drive them out."
My sister turned away and muttered, “Verflixt!” Then she added, "I've got classes to prepare for, I was rather hoping for an early night."
I thought she had been looking tired all morning, both at Church and when we had driven up to the Bergrestaurant. It was not until near the end of lunch that she had said one word.
"Heiri who?" asked my aunt as we climbed the stairs leading from the main restaurant to where we had hung our coats, "Not little Heiri Rüegg by any chance?"
"Yes, darling, your old boy-friend," said Mother a trifle coyly, "And there's nothing very little about him nowadays, I assure you."
Aunt Emma glared at her, "Stop grinning like a Cheshire Cat, Louisa. You know I can't stand the man, never could."
"That makes two of us," said Hanna comfortingly, taking Aunt Emma's arm and leading the way along the corridor, "Anyway, we don't have to see him even if he is here."
But we did. The door to a private room opened and a waitress, bright red in the face and carrying a heavily-laden tray, seemed to be swept out on a wave of expensive masculine laughter from within. We heard High German being spoken and caught a glimpse of Dr Rüegg standing at the head of a long table, wine-glass raised as if in valediction to the departing waitress. His handsome features were creased in laughter and he was surrounded by a covey of grinning wine-flushed faces upturned to his. The waitress had looked furious. It was pretty clear the laughter had been at her expense.
Hanna and my aunt had put on a turn of speed and were already climbing into the car, giggling like two schoolgirls, when I reached the forecourt.
I paused for a moment to admire the view. It was normally stunning: a vast panorama of lake and valley nestling between thickly-wooded hills, with giant white-toothed mountains forming a magnificent background. But today heavy cloud had blocked off much of the splendour and stifled the scene in a kind of opaque stupor. All movement had been annihilated. Not a breath of wind stirred a leaf, a branch, a cloud. The lake was like a sightless man's glass eye and even the streams running into it seemed suspended in midmotion. There was practically no sound except for the occasional car climbing the mountain road, and every now and then the muffled clonk of cowbells from slopes high up behind us. The whole land was not only asleep, I thought, it was positively snoring.
After a while Mother and Uncle Hubert joined me, but Dr Rüegg had evidentally snared Father. One heard Rüegg's high-pitched cackle, overridden by Father's great booming voice.
Uncle Hubert asked irritably, "Who is that odious man?"
Mother shot him a guarded look, then we both laughed as we realised the situation. We had been speaking in Swiss dialect before, of which Uncle Hubert, though he had been married to a Swiss for twenty years, understood not a word.
Mother replied, "That's Hans's new business partner, Dr Heinrich Rüegg."
"Doctor? Looks more like a playboy to me."
"Doctor of law, not medicine," I supplied. "As a matter of fact he's not just any old lawyer but a big noise in legal circles. He's Staatsanwalt."
"What the blazes is that?"
"State Attorney ... or do you say Public Prosecutor in English?"
"All these titles! What a beknighted country!"
Uncle Hubert spoke bitterly. He was clearly chafing to get back home. As we walked over to our battered Mercedes he went on fiercely, "You know, Martin, I think I've worked it out at last, how the Swiss spend their lives and why it leaves them no time to make a worthwhile contribution to the world in general. Their chief occupation seems to be thinking up stupendous polysyllabic titles for each other and then organising vast luncheon-parties over which they make interminable ear-grating speeches and then bestow these fatuous titles on each other. It's a national pastime – that, and shaking hands."
"Jawohl, Herr Professor Oberstudienrat," I made up on the spur of the moment, and we all laughed as we squeezed into the back of the ancient Mercedes and waited for Father. Nearby was parked an enormous white American limousine with huge tail-fins. "Dr Rüegg's new street-cruiser," I mentioned quietly to Hanna. She nodded. Aunt Emma in front heard me.
"Typical! The smaller the man the bigger the car. It's a form of sex compensation."
Hanna and I grinned, "Just the right sort of chariot for his triumphal procession into Berne, anyway," she said.
"What's Berne got to do with it?"
"Dr Rüegg is standing for the Canton in the elections next month."
"Will he get in?"
"Probably. He's got the support where it counts."
"And where's that? The silly women, I suppose. Now they've got the vote at last they'll throw it at the first floridly handsome face they see on TV. Being a widower won't do him any harm either; half the female population will secretly want to marry him and the other half mother him."
"He may not remain a widower much longer. There's talk of his remarrying," Mother supplied.
"I bet she's as ugly as Satan and loaded with money."
"Nobody's clapped eyes on her yet. If there is a 'her'."
Hanna said, "He'll get the women's vote all right, but his chief support comes from the Establishment. He's a member of just about every business- board in the Canton. If he isn't on the board he generally wangles his way to the edge of the table as 'legal adviser' or some such euphemism."
"The Americans would have a nice description of the man," said Uncle Hubert, "They'd call him a wheeler-dealer."
"Was that the Establishment he was wheeling and dealing with just now?"
"No, I don't think so. It seemed to me they were Germans. That's supposed to be one of his more profitable sidelines."
Aunt Emma frowned. "I don't get you. Not that Im all that interested,"
Not much you aren't, I thought. What was the story about Aunt Emma and Heiri Rüegg, many years back? I would have to ask Mother for details. Hanna answered, "I imagine those were German lambs being fattened up for the slaughter. Rich German lambs, eager to be fleeced."
"Germans?" Uncle Hubert sounded interested, "What do they want in Switzerland?"
"Anything that isn't nailed down. Correction. What's nailed down as well. Land. Property. Fictitious holding companies for purposes of tax evasion. Crumbling castles, farmers antique furniture, tenant-owned flats, luxury villas in the sun – half the Canton of Tessin is in German hands, and you'll need to show your Swiss passport to get into the Graubünden soon."
"Don't the Swiss have any laws against that sort of thing?"
"Plenty. And plenty of Swiss lawyers to show the Germans how to get round them. It's a gigantic farce, and Rüegg – "
"Really children, I don't think you ought to talk about your father's new partner like that." Mother had been clucking disapprovingly for some time and finally got her oar in. She heaved a sigh of relief, "Ah, here comes Papi at last."
Father looked pleased with himself as he lowered his bulky weight behind the steering-wheel and switched on the ignition, "Got to hand it to Heiri, the man's full of ideas. That Water Pollution committee tonight – guess what he's thought up? A Seeputzete! A combined drive to clean up the lake. Clever, eh? How about it, children? Think we can get Youth in on this?"
He let in the clutch and drove towards the exit where the forecourt abutted onto the steep mountain road, talking all the time over his shoulder to Hanna and me. He seemed very taken with Dr Rüegg's idea. Hanna said dryly, "If you don't get Youth in on it, I can't imagine who else will clean up the lake. Grandmothers and babes-in-arms?"
Father ignored her tone, "That's what we'll do – get the split Generations in on this, working together. Splendid. Splendid." He swung with enthusiasm onto the road. There was a blood-chilling screech of tyres, shrieks from the womenfolk, oaths from Father and somehow above it all a rich wave of Italian song and laughter as a small car swerved hideously close and swept past us to the forecourt behind.
"Flaming idiots! Murderous fools! Can't they look where they're going? Mindless cretinous Tschingge! God and damnation, they bloody well nearly rammed me!" yelled Father.
I thought it was we who had nearly rammed them – Father was well over the white line – but I said nothing. We looked back as Father sat trembling at the wheel, trying to regain his composure. That familiar object of a Swiss Sunday afternoon, a tiny Fiat packed to bursting point with Italian workers out for a joy-ride had slithered to a flamboyant halt in front of the restaurant, and hordes of laughing, gesticulating dark-haired men were pouring out of the tiny car. Some of them I knew by sight, from the football team. A crazy crowd, but on the whole harmless.
"My God, that was a near thing,” muttered Uncle Hubert. He looked shattered and I thought at first he had swallowed his cherry-wood pipe. I was out of luck. He retrieved it from the floor and began to stuff it with ‘Heath and Heather’, his fingers trembling. Hanna turned round abruptly and faced the front; she looked pretty shaken too. Father stopped swearing and debated whether to step out and reprimand the Italians for dangerous driving, then thought better of it and re-started the engine.
"Damned Tschingge,” he muttered, driving cautiously down the hill, "Shouldn't be allowed out on the road, half of them."
"What's a Tschingg ?" asked Uncle Hubert.