JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: How do you make the perfect place into the setting for a murder? Don't ask me - I chose an economically failing town in upstate New York plagued by rotten weather. Who needs the challenge of creating bad deeds in a perfect part of the world?
Tracee de Hahn does. Her debut novel, SWISS VENDETTA, introduces readers to Detective Agnes Lüthi, new to widowhood and to the Violent Crimes Unit in Lausanne. I know what you're thinking, because I thought the same thing: There are violent crimes in Switzerland? Land of the sweet baby cheeses and wooden clocks? Country of cow-dotted meadows beneath majestic alps? Nation famous for its precision, discretion, and high standards?
Today, Tracee tells us about the Switzerland she's come to know and love; the good, the bad, and...we can't say ugly, can we. How about...questionable?
We are deep in the heart of winter – a season I love – and I’m enjoying the snow, although I do dream of ‘bigger and better’ snow in Switzerland.
My husband is Swiss and I was fortunate to live there for several years. Was it idyllic? Absolutely. We moved to Lausanne from another European city, which I won’t name – it is farther south and built on water – where things didn’t always work perfectly. In Switzerland, all was perfection, from the views, to the food, to the people on the streets.
Well, maybe not absolutely perfect.
First off, even getting the name right is hard. There are four official languages - French, German, Italian and Romansh - resulting in four informal names for the country: Suisse, Schweiz, Svizzera, and Svizra. The official name is Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft (Swiss Confederation in English), although the literal translation is more like ‘the brotherhood of men who stood in a field and swore an oath of eternal cooperation and friendship.’ To cause more confusion, the government chose another name for the international registration code: The Confederatio Helvetica, derived from the Helvetii, one of the local pre-Roman tribes. Masters of compromise, and why you see CH stickers on cars across the country.
At roughly twice the size of New Jersey, Switzerland is a big, diverse village. The natural beauty of the country was ‘discovered’ by the English in the 19th century and worldwide tourism was born. This happened in 1863, which was a good year. The Red Cross was founded in Geneva and Mr. Thomas Cook of Great Britain conducted the first package tour of the country. The Brits climbed the mountains and sailed the lakes, leaving five star hotels and restaurants in their wake.
In addition to its natural beauty, Switzerland is a land of trust. People expect their neighbors to follow the laws. They trust each other to make important national decisions together. Including one memorable vote on whether or not to purchase new fighter planes AND whether or not to disband the carrier pigeon corps. It was yes to both. The US sold them F-16s and the pigeons were put out to pasture, so to speak.
Of course, even in a perfect world not everyone behaves correctly. This often means that when the Swiss are faced with dishonesty or deceit they are alarmingly innocent. Or perhaps they have been turning a blind eye for so long they don’t want to admit it? Their role in World War II? In certain banking practices? Hmmm.
Secrecy is a national pastime. Hidden amongst the mountains and lakes are dozens of deep tunnels created as army bunkers during World War II. Today, many are open to the public as hotels, museums and restaurants, while others store cheese and mushrooms. Most had concealed entrances (fake boulders, castle ruins), but a few were hidden in plain sight, including one bright pink house near the small town of Gland. There, the garage doors open to reveal a cannon and array of machine guns in case the enemy made it over the mountains.
My husband attended boarding school at the Institut La Gruyère and the village and castle of the counts of Gruyère remain a favorite vacation spot. The landscape is bucolic, and at the foot of the hill is the Maison du Gruyère where the famous cheese is created. Cheese is one of the friendly and wholesome associations with Switzerland… until you read about the cheese mafia. Who knew that those fondue parties of the 1970s were the result of a masterplan!
Of course, writers have made their mark with figures ranging from Lord Byron and the Shelleys, to Nietzsche and Rousseau. Byron brought his personal physician with him and the man was inspired to write The Vampyre (progenitor of the romantic vampire novels of today) while, of course, Mary Shelley was inspired to create Frankenstein. All in an idyllic summer setting!
With its beauty and diversity, its history and geography, I’ve always found Switzerland inspiring and wonder what places inspire others? And why?
JULIA: Fondue the result of Swiss plotting. It all begins to make sense, now. What do you think, dear readers? One lucky commentor will win a copy of SWISS VENDETTA!
On the eve of the worst blizzard Lausanne has seen in centuries, Inspector Agnes Lüthi is called out to investigate her very first homicide case. On the lawn of Château Vallotton, at the edge of Lac Léman, a young art dealer has been found stabbed to death. Agnes finds it difficult to draw answers out of anyone—the tight-lipped Swiss family living in the château, the servants who have been loyal to the family for generations, the aging World War II survivor who lives in the neighboring mansion, even the American history student studying at the château’s library. As the storm rages on, the roads become impassable, the power goes out and Agnes finds herself trapped in the candlelit halls with all the players of the mystery, out of her depth in her first murder case and still struggling to stay afloat after the death of her husband.