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Pesticide by Kim Hays — crime for intelligent readers

Cover of Pesticide, a crime fiction novel by Kim Hays set in Switzerland. The cover shows the heart of a large red cabbage.

My one and only visit to Switzerland many years ago left a lasting impression of a country with Germanic-like efficiency yet more than a touch of southern European joie de vivre. 

But there is a side to the country I never saw, one that comes to life in Pesticide by Kim Hays, a police procedural set in the medieval city of Berne and the farmlands beyond.

It begins on a hot summer night as a rave in the centre of the city erupts in violence. When the bludgeoned body of a young man is discovered the following day, suspicion falls one of the policemen tasked with restoring order.

He admits he’d used his club on the man though not landed just one blow. But the experienced detective assigned to the incident has to consider where the truth lies. Was the officer guilty of excessive force or was someone else responsible for the death?

That same day, the body of an elderly organic farmer is discovered in his potting shed; he’d been bashed on the head and drenched with pesticide. 

The two crimes don’t at first appear to be connected. But as the investigations get under way, Giuliana Linder and her junior colleague, Renzo Donatell, uncover a connection between the world of drugs and the business of organic farming. 

Pesticide is a neatly constructed tale that leads the reader by the hand through every stage of the investigation. There are good twists and red herrings but mercifully we are not expected to buy into plot developments seemingly conjured out of nowhere. Nor are there any characters who pop up just in the final pages and turn out to be the culprits.

For once the fictional detectives don’t operate almost entirely by inspiration; instead Linder and Donatell solve the crimes through meticulous attention to detail and a fair amount of trekking around fields. There’s a physical attraction between this pair that gives the narrative additional zest, particularly when it causes Giuliana to reflect on the relationship with her journalist husband that is currently going through a rocky patch.

Pesticide is a novel of detail, sometimes too much so for my taste. I didn’t feel the need, for example, to be told about every action and every thought of the investigating team. Paragraphs like this one:

With Louise gone, Noah and Renzo returned to the case-room, fetching themselves coffee on the way. Noah sank into the chair behind his desk; Renzo leaned his bottom against another desk and took a swallow from his cup.

Or this, from two pages later:

He swerved across two mercifully empty Autobahn lanes and onto the exit ramp followed the GPS map through the small town and parked next to a field of … some tall grass. Could it be wheat? He had no idea.

didn’t materially enhance either my understanding of the characters or the setting. They just slowed down the narrative unnecessarily and I wouldn’t have lost anything if they had been edited out.

Putting that to one side however, I did enjoy many other aspects of the book. The partnership of Linder and Donatell is engaging, with just the right level of friction and chemistry to lift them off the page. And I loved the tantalising glimpses of the streets and squares within Berne and its proximity to the Alps.

… a panorama of jagged peaks and gleaming snow that never failed to put things into perspective, at least for the space of a few indrawn breaths.

In essence Pestilence is detective fiction for intelligent readers who enjoy being transported to another country. The kind of readers who want an unusual angle to a crime but don’t need whistles and bells on every page.

Pestilence by Kim Hays: Footnotes

Kim Hays  is a dual citizen of Switzerland and the USA who lives in Bern with her Swiss husband. Before her marriage, she lived in San Juan, Vancouver, and Stockholm, as well as the States. Since her teens, Hays has worked in a variety of jobs, from forewoman in a truck-engine factory to lecturer in sociology to cross-cultural trainer for multinational firms. She found a publisher for Pesticide after it was shortlisted for the 2020 Debut Dagger award by the Crime Writers’ Association.

Pesticide was published by Seventh Street Books in April 2022. It’s intended as the first in a series featuring Giuliana and Renzo and the city and canton of Bern

My thanks go to Kim Hays and her publishers for an advance copy of Pestilence in return for an honest review.

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