Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Friedrich Glauser may not be the best-known of Golden-Age writers, but his work was very influential – so influential in fact that Germany’s most prestigious prize for German-language crime fiction is called the Friedrich Glauser Prize. So it’s about time this feature included one of Glauser’s novels. Let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on Thumbprint, the first of his Sergeant Studer novels.
The novel begins with the attempted suicide of Erwin Schlumpf, who’s been arrested on suspicion of shooting travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi, the father of Schlumpf’s sweetheart Sonja. The arresting officer is Sergeant Jacob Struder of the Bern Cantonal Police. Studer has developed rather a liking for Schlumpf and decides on the spur of the moment to visit him in prison. He arrives just in time to help rescue Schlumpf from his suicide attempt, and decides to look into the case again.
To do that, he goes to the town of Gerzenstein, where the Witschi family lives, to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. He begins with information he’s gotten from Corporal Murmann of the local police. One area of interest is of course the members of the family. It turns out that there are several motives there for murder. For one thing, Witschi and his wife did not have a happy marriage, especially in recent years. And then there are the odd responses of Sonja and her brother Armin to the investigation. There’s also the fact that everyone seems very quick to assume Schlumpf’s guilt.
But family relationships are only one avenue of exploration. It turns out that Witschi was in dire financial straits. Following the money, as the saying goes, leads to other suspects. Witschi had taken some desperate measures to get out of his difficulties, and that too has possibilities. And then there’s the thief Hans Augsburger, who’s somehow managed to acquire the gun that was used in the murder.
All along, Studer gets the feeling that people are not telling him everything they know. His experience tells him that witnesses often do that when they don’t want to reveal embarrassing but unrelated things. But he is also sure that several of those involved in the case are hiding relevant information too. Bit by bit, he puts the pieces of the puzzle together and uncovers the truth.
Although this isn’t really a police procedural in the modern sense of the term, there are certainly elements of that sub-genre in the story. Studer finds out the truth through evidence, witness accounts, observation and so on. He does make wise deductions from what he learns, but the case isn’t solved ‘magically.’ It’s also worth noting that there isn’t a lot of the police politics that one often sees in modern police procedurals. In this story, Studer, his boss and Murmann work fairly well together.
The mystery has a prosaic solution, but there is a hint of the surreal here and there in the story. In particular, Studer has dreams that are related to the case. Readers who don’t like the surreal in their stories will be relieved to know that Studer’s dreams don’t solve the murder. But they play a role in the way that he thinks about the case.
Another element in the novel is the social commentary on life in a small Swiss town just before World War II. It’s a quiet, orderly place where everyone knows everyone, and everyone listens to the radio. In fact, Studer notices that even people’s speech is affected by radio broadcasts. This isn’t the stereotypical ‘eerie town with evil secrets.’ But it is the kind of place where everyone knows what’s going on around town, and people tend to keep one another’s secrets. So Studer has work to do to get people to open up. He gets hints from time to time, but not actual facts – that is, until he confronts people with what he knows and suspects. News spreads fast, too, so that almost as soon as he begins his investigation, people already know who he is and why he’s in town. Their reaction is usually some form of, ‘But I thought Schlumpf’s already in prison for that murder!’ There’s also broader, but much less direct, commentary on the banking and financial scandals of the last years of Germany’s Weimar Repbulic (the book was published in 1936). Interestingly enough, though, there is no mention at all of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
Another element in the novel is the character of Studer himself. The story is told in the third person, from his point of view, so we learn a great deal about the way he sees both the town and the case. He’s an ordinary ‘everyman’ kind of a sleuth, and readers who are tired of demon-haunted detectives will be pleased to note that he’s quite functional. He’s happily married to his wife Hedwig ‘Hedy,’ and although he has a drink (and sometimes several more) like a lot of people, he doesn’t drown his troubles in a bottle. Studer has a streak of compassion, and he’s even forged a kind of bond with some of the criminals he’s arrested. Still, the fact that he sees people as human beings doesn’t blind him to what he has to do.
The solution to the mystery, and the way the story pans out, are sad. Readers who like stories where the culprit is a real ‘bad guy’ who’s led away in handcuffs will notice this. This is a more complex story than that, and there are opportunities for the reader to ask, ‘What would I do?’ That said though, there are some bright spots, and there is a feeling that life will go on and people will resume some semblance of what often counts as an ‘ordinary life.’
The pace of the story isn’t thriller-like. At the same time, there is a sort of urgency. Studer is concerned, for instance, that Schlumpf might try again to commit suicide; and this time, he may succeed. There’s also a hint that Studer is looking into the business of some highly-placed people who could be dangerous. And it doesn’t help matters that in the course of the investigation, Studer becomes ill with what turns out to be pleurisy. As he gets sicker and sicker, he also gets more and more determined to solve the case before he’s bed-ridden.
Thumbprint is a Golden-Age, plot-driven story of what happens when murder strikes a small Swiss-German town. It has a distinctive setting and offers a look at life in Switzerland just before the outbreak of World War II. It also features a hard-working, pragmatic police sergeant. The solution isn’t a happy one, but it is logical given the characters and the motivation. But what’s your view? Have you read Thumbprint? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 8 December/Tuesday 9 December – Vanish – Tess Gerritsen
Monday 15 December/Tuesday 16 December – Snatch – Bill Pronzini
Monday 22 December/Tuesday 23 December – Malicious Intent – Kathryn Fox