Thursday, May 18, 2023

Medieval Meets Modern in Switzerland: Guest Post by Kim Hays


When I began a series of police procedurals set in Bern, my hometown in Switzerland, I resolved to avoid writing about Swiss watches, Swiss cheese, Swiss chocolate, Swiss Army knives, and secret bank accounts. No clichés allowed. Then, in Sons and Brothers, the second book in my Polizei Bern series, I found myself giving the murder victim a bank account that his family didn’t know about and—oh, dear—an heirloom watch that plays a role in the plot. So much for resolutions.
Nevertheless, refraining from stereotyping Switzerland and the Swiss remains an essential goal of mine. I’ve lived in Bern with my Swiss husband for thirty-five years, so I’m familiar with all the generalizations about this country. I do indeed know many Swiss who are more reserved than the average American, and quite a few of them have a fondness for calm and order that stems primarily from a desire to avoid conflict with their neighbors and the world. But Switzerland is not a land of control freaks. Like their American counterparts, the Swiss police regularly deal with drunken violence, drug dealing, spouse battering, vandalism, rape, and arson. Houses are burgled, and late-night pedestrians are mugged. Admittedly, in this country of under nine million people, there are very few murders (one homicide per year for every 200,000 people compared with thirteen per year in the US). Gun violence, in particular, is rare—a blessing for the country, if not for writers of murder mysteries. 
Pesticide, my first book, begins with a rave in Bern turning into a huge riot, an actual event that I experienced. When the riot is over, a dead man is discovered—something that didn’t actually happen. Much of the book takes place in a farming village, but the story deals not with barns full of traditional Swiss dairy cows but with fields of organic vegetables. Today’s Swiss grocery shelves are as full of organic produce as they are of Swiss cheese.  My newly published second book, Sons and Brothersalso takes police detectives Linder and Donatelli away from the city to investigate their murder victim’s past in the place where he was born. It’s a community of rivers and mountains, picturesque farms, and cozy inns, not to mention a church with a white tower and a small castle. Clichéd as that sounds, it’s a reality in many Swiss villages. 
In these same villages, children as young as nine used to work from morning till night on those picturesque farms, sleeping in haylofts and not getting enough to eat. These “contract children” or Verdingkinder were taken away from their parents because authorities did not approve of how they were being raised and then given to farmers as free labor. This appalling government policy began in the early eighteen hundreds and only ended in the nineteen seventies; its consequences are still being dealt with today. This, too, is part of the real Switzerland that I want my stories to convey.
Something I love about this country and try to show in my books is how the traditional and the ultramodern exist side by side. At Bern’s core is the medieval Old City, its skyline dominated by its largest church, the fifteenth-century Münster. Outside the loop of the Aare River that encircles and defines the boundaries of the Old City is the Bern University teaching hospital. Only a twenty-minute walk from the fifteenth-century Münster, it’s filled with the latest medical technology. Tourists come from all over the world to see Bern’s Old City; sick people come from all over the world to be treated in the Insel Hospital. 
Another beloved example of the medieval and the modern combined are Bern’s bears, who live just across the Aare River from Nydegg, the oldest section of town. The bear is a symbol of the city and canton and can be found on Bern’s coat of arms and official flag; the first record of a live bear being brought to the city is from 1513. Once bears were kept in the center of town, but in 1857 a large pit for the city’s mascot was created next to where today’s bears are kept. 
The idea of keeping bears in a pit in the middle of a city sounds barbaric and, well, medieval. But today’s three brown bears, Finn and Björk and their daughter Ursina, only spend time in the pit while their living area is being cleaned and their food distributed. Otherwise, they roam around a large park full of trees along the side of a hill above the river. From the square above the bears’ modern quarters or the path below along the river, tourists can watch Finn, Björk, and Ursina swim in a pool (fed by the Aare), climb trees, or wrestle with each other. Their park includes enclosures built into the hillside where they can retreat if they don’t want to be watched and where they live during the winter. They’re under the management of the city’s zoo and receive excellent care.
The bear park is a typical Swiss compromise, showing that it’s possible to reshape tradition so that it meets the standards of today’s world but still warms the cockles of Swiss hearts! 

Sons and Brothers, the second police procedural in Kim Hays’s Polizei Bern series, was published on April 18 by Seventh Street Books. In it, 
a cardiac surgeon in his seventies is attacked and drowned in Bern’s Aare River. The district attorney suspects the victim’s estranged son Markus, but Bern police detectives Linder and Donatelli have other ideas about the crime. 

Kim Hays is a dual Swiss/US citizen who lives in Bern with her Swiss husband. The first book in her Polizei Bern series, Pesticide, was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger Award by the Crime Writers Association, and Deborah Crombie called it “a standout debut for 2022.” For more information about Kim and Switzerland, see




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