Interview with Kim Hays, author of Sons and Brothers

Today it gives the Indie Crime Scene great pleasure to interview Kim Hays, whose novel Sons and Brothers has its debut on April 18.

Sons and Brothers is the second mystery in your Polizei Bern series, the sequel to your novel Pesticide. What made you choose Switzerland, and Bern in particular, for this series?

It was an easy choice, since I know Bern better than any place in the world. I also think Switzerland is perceived by many as safe, overregulated, and a bit boring. That made me want to show readers that Bern, with its medieval center and looping river, is a fascinating place that can also sometimes be dangerous.

Readers first meet your protagonists, Swiss police detective Giuliana Linder and her assistant Renzo Donatelli, in Pesticide. Tell us about Linder and Donatelli and their relationship. How do they work together?

Renzo, who’s in his mid-thirties with a wife and two pre-schoolers, began working with Giuliana as an older mentor and ended up falling in love with her. First in Pesticide and now in Sons and Brothers, Renzo’s feelings for Giuliana complicate their working relationship a lot. She is also very interested in him but won’t risk breaking up her marriage over him, since she is much happier with her husband than he is with his wife. Because they’re both good interviewers and keen investigators dedicated to their jobs, they usually manage to put their mutual attraction aside and work together as a very effective team.

What is distinctive about Swiss police detectives and their modus operandi?

To me, the most interesting thing about the police force in the canton of Bern is how informal and egalitarian they are, with few military-sounding titles and little hierarchy. In the case of the homicide department, although one person among the group of detectives has some extra decision-making authority, she also takes on cases and assists other members of the team as needed, just like everyone else.

The title Sons and Brothers hints at the theme of the mystery. What clues, if any, can you offer your readers?

The murder victim in this novel is a wealthy and successful man with three adult sons. It doesn’t take long before the middle one, Markus, is a suspect in his father’s death. As Giuliana and Renzo investigate this troubled family, readers learn about another man, almost the same age as the victim, who was taken away from his mother as a boy and forced to work as a “contract child” for a farmer who mistreated him. These two older men, with their very different backgrounds, were classmates as children. One of the themes of the book is how often lives intertwine unexpectedly and influence each other, sometimes over generations.

Linder and Donatelli are called in to investigate the death of seventy-two-year-old surgeon Johann Karl Gurtner, found drowned in Bern’s Aare River. Who is Gurtner and why is his death suspicious?

Johann Karl Gurtner is a successful and well-known cardiac surgeon who is also respected for his charitable work in the city. Despite his age, he still works at Bern’s teaching hospital and is married for a second time to a much younger wife. On his mother’s side, Gurtner is descended from one of Bern’s untitled aristocratic families, whose influence dates back to the medieval days of the city. When his body is found in the Aare, the river that defines the city of Bern, it’s clear that his drowning wasn’t an accident, since he was punched in the face and restrained by the wrists before going into the water. Yet the attack was no mugging—Gurtner’s wallet is full of money. The Polizei Bern will have to figure out who killed him and why.

As an American who has lived and worked in Bern for many years and is married to a Swiss, what perspective do you have on Swiss culture?

Over the many years I’ve lived here, Swiss culture—or at least Swiss-German culture (since the Swiss French and Swiss Italian lifestyles are somewhat different) has slowly but surely become very much my own culture, at least when it comes to trying to be modest, quiet, rule-abiding, community-oriented, responsible, and punctual. I still tend to be louder and more outgoing than the average Swiss, but no one minds. Of course, like any country, Switzerland has its faults (as my books show), but I am very happy that I live here. 

Pesticide was shortlisted for the 2020 Debut Dagger award by the Crime Writers’ Association. How did you approach writing the “difficult” second novel?

I didn’t have that problem because I had already written the first three novels in the Polizei Bern series by the time Pesticide was shortlisted for that award. When I couldn’t get an agent for my first novel, I spent some time feeling very discouraged, but then decided to write a second book, and, after that, a third. Pesticide getting shortlisted was what finally brought the novel to the attention of the editorial director at Seventh Street Books and led to it and its sequels being published. I’m just finishing the fourth in the series now.

What drew you to writing mystery stories and police procedurals in particular?

When I decided in my fifties to try and write a novel, it seemed natural to me that I’d write a mystery, since I wanted my book to entertain people. As for police procedurals, I’ve always preferred them to other kinds of mysteries, because I like watching the process of solving a crime, and that process is more complicated and intricate when it’s constrained by rules and laws—like the police having to get search warrants instead of simply breaking into houses or having to arrest people and interrogate them instead of just beating them up. I’m aware that the police in every country don’t always follow these rules, but I find a crime-solving story more interesting when they do. 

How important are realism and the daily lives of your characters?

It was very important to me that my detectives Giuliana and Renzo should have realistic and relatively normal lives with spouses, children, and extended families, because I wanted to write about how hard it is for parents to balance their jobs and personal lives—perhaps especially hard for cops.

Have you always wanted to write, and what prompted you to start?

Although one of my first jobs out of college was as a factory forewoman (and I confess I didn’t last there very long), most of the paid work I’ve done in my life has involved writing, whether it was producing funding proposals for non-profits, freelance articles on tropical drinks, or classroom lessons plans. I didn’t decide to write a novel until my son went off to college. I thought about what I wanted to do with this new phase of my life and decided that if I were ever going to write a book, it was then or never. 

Did you love to read crime and mystery novels from the beginning?

I did. My mother was a librarian and a great reader, especially of mysteries, and it didn’t take long for me to graduate from Sherlock Holmes stories and Nancy Drew to reading books starring one of her favourite detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey. From there I went on to try lots of different mystery writers. I’ve always enjoyed the excitement of solving the whodunit puzzle, and I’m particularly fascinated by the complex process of investigating a crime.

What do you enjoy reading now and are there any particular favourites?

I like literary novels, as well as science fiction, fantasy, and romance, but I still read more mysteries than anything else.  Some old favourites are Josephine Tey, Dick Francis, Margaret Maron, and Michael Connelly, among many, many others. A relatively new mystery author whose work I’ve enjoyed enormously is the Australian Jane Harper, especially her book The Survivors (2021), although the newest, Exiles, is also excellent.

You have travelled widely and worked in many fields. What can you tell your readers about how far this has influenced your writing?

I think having to adapt over and over to different jobs and cities and people has taught me something about judgement. On the one hand, I’ve worked hard to be slower to judge things that may at first seem strange to me. On the other hand, I have learned to recognize pretty quickly what I’m willing to put up with in a variety of situations and to stand up for myself. Although my two main characters, Renzo and Giuliana, are very different from me, I’ve tried to give them a similar combination of open-mindedness and strong principles, which I think are good qualities in a detective.

To what extent does living and working in a different country from the one where you started out give you a unique perspective?

When I moved to Switzerland, I spoke little German and couldn’t understand the Swiss-German dialect. This not only meant that I couldn’t work at a job that required speaking or writing but also that everyday tasks like shopping were suddenly difficult, since I didn’t know any of the brands and couldn’t read the labels. At dinner parties with my Swiss husband’s friends, I sat and smiled in silence, because I couldn’t understand what anyone around me was saying (although thank God I didn’t force our friends to use English with me, or I wouldn’t speak German so well today). I also made quite a few embarrassing mistakes, like kissing people I was supposed to shake hands with, because I didn’t understand local etiquette. Although I’ve felt completely at home here for years now, my experience of being an immigrant was and remains very humbling, and it changed the way I see the world. Above all, it has given me great sympathy for anyone trying to build a normal life for themselves in a new country.

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About Kim Hays:

Kim Hays is a dual Swiss/US citizen. After years spent in the States, as well as in San Juan, Vancouver, and Stockholm, she now lives in Bern with her Swiss husband.  She has worked in a variety of jobs, from forewoman in a truck-engine factory to lecturer in sociology. Sons and Brothers is the second mystery in her Polizei Bern series; the first, Pesticide, was shortlisted for the 2020 Debut Dagger award by the Crime Writers’ Association. Kim has a BA from Harvard and a PhD from the University of California-Berkeley.

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