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Book Author: Kim Hays

SONS AND BROTHERS by Kim Hays: Book Review

Verdingkinder is a word that was unknown to me, as I suspect it is to most readers.  It’s Swiss-German, meaning “contract children” or “indentured child laborers,” and it refers to a practice in Switzerland in which children were removed from their homes and basically sold to people needing an extra pair of hands, either on farms or in factories or doing domestic chores.   

Sometimes the children were orphans, but at other times they were sold because their families could no longer care for them, either emotionally or monetarily.

A study estimated that in 1930 there were some 35,000 verdingkinder in the country, although some estimates were as high as twice that number.  There were auctions at which farmers bid for the children’s services, scarily similar to the slave auctions in the United States before the Civil War.  Many of these children suffered brutal working conditions, injuries, and beatings, all of it ignored by the authorities.

In Sons and Brothers, Kim Hays brings the stories of some of these children to life, with the repercussions that are still occurring nearly a century after the practice was outlawed.

Detective Giuliana Linder and Investigator Renzo Donatelli are on the Bern police force, and they are called to investigate a call about a corpse found floating in the Aare River.  The man is identified almost immediately as Johann Karl Gurtner, a retired cardiologist.  More than a simple drowning, it’s obvious that the victim had been in a vicious fight.  Strangely, his wallet was found with a great deal of money inside, but his watch was missing.

Gurtner had two adult sons from his first marriage and a teenage son from his second and current one.  He was a strict father, demanding perfection and obedience from them, but no one can come up with a reason that he was murdered.  His middle son Markus has never lived up to his father’s high expectations for him, but now, after some missteps, including a prison term, Markus has found a career as a successful photographer.

When Giuliana goes to Markus’ apartment to interview him, she’s stunned to see a photograph she recognizes as part of a city-sponsored exhibit on verdingkinder.  She realizes that he is the artist who created the mesmerizing photos of the now-elderly people who had been contract laborers as children.  Although she still views Markus as a suspect in his father’s death, she’s compelled to tell him that in her opinion the photographs are “brilliant.”

Can there be a connection between the verdingkinder and Gurtner’s death?  Markus tells Giuliana that his father spoke very little about his childhood and advises her to contact Charlotte, Johann’s older sister, and she discovers that Johann’s relationship with his own father was a difficult one as was his with Markus.  The past repeating itself, Giuliana thinks, but just how this connects to the verdingkinder and Johann’s death is still to be discovered.

Sons and Brothers is a compelling novel about a crime that goes back decades, giving readers a look into an unsavory part of Switzerland’s past.  Linder and Donatelli are totally believable characters, and the story, unfortunately, is an all-too-true one.

You can read more about Kim Hays at this site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.




PESTICIDE by Kim Hays: Book Review

There are several words that don’t immediately spring to mind when talking about Switzerland–riots, murder, and organic farming.  However, in Kim Hays’ debut novel Pesticide, readers will realize that these three can combine and prove deadly even in the most apparently tranquil places.

Ten thousand teenagers are attending the Dance-In, a celebration in downtown Bern that has turned violent.  The opportunity to sell drugs to the rioting participants is too good to pass up, and one onlooker sells all he has with him.  Then he celebrates with a few drinks, or maybe more than a few.  Now he and a friend find themselves in the midst of a rampage after leaving a tavern, surrounded by looters.

As a lone policeman runs to catch up with his colleagues during the upheaval, it seems like a good joke to the drug dealer to step into the cop’s path and stick out his foot.  The cop flies into a nearby car, helmet first, which makes his assailant laugh hysterically.  But his mood quickly changes when the policeman turns around and runs back to the man; then everything goes black for the dealer.

Early the next morning Detective Giuliana Linder gets a call from police headquarters, saying that a young patrolman is being held for murder.  When Giuliana arrives at the station, Jonas Pauli tells her his story.  He admits hitting the deceased dealer on the head but says, “I never thought one blow could kill someone.”  However, during the autopsy it’s discovered that there were two blows to the man’s head, although Jonas swears that he hit him only once.

Equally concerning for the Bern police, another murder has taken place.  In a village twenty miles from the city, a group of farmers holds a meeting, but its most important member isn’t there.  Frank Schwab has been farming organically longer than almost anyone else in the country, and his views on anything not organic are even stricter than the government’s.

Knowing how crucial Frank’s input is to their discussion, his best friend Matthias Ruch is uneasy at his absence.  Several hours later, still not having heard from Frank, Matthias bikes over to his friend’s farm, and after a search of the house he starts on the yard, the gardens, and the outbuildings.  When he enters the potting shed he sees Frank’s bloodied corpse and smells the distinct odor of a pesticide, something his friend never would have permitted on his land. 

Renzo Donatelli is assigned to investigate Frank’s death, but he can’t find anyone with a grudge against the farmer.  Matthias tells Renzo that in addition to Frank’s fervor about organic farming, his late friend believed that marijuana should be legal.  “Frank smoked dope for as long as I knew him, and he grew some too, but only for himself,” Matthias says.  As Renzo continues to question Matthias, his phone rings.  It’s another policeman who has been searching Frank’s fields, and he has unexpected news.  He has found a hidden field of weed, with an estimated street value of at least a hundred thousand francs.  “Enough to murder for, I guess.”

Kim Hays’ novel gives readers a wonderful sense of place and Swiss culture.  Giuliana and Renzo are dedicated police officers and terrific characters, and in this novel we get a sense of their public and private lives and the difficulties in both.

You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.