Thumbprint is the first novel in a series written in the 1930s by Friedrich Glauser; a series so influential that Germany’s main crime-fiction award is the Glauser prize. The novel is a highly readable affair, opening with the imprisonment of Erwin Schlumph, a young man arrested for shooting Wendelin Witschi, a travelling salesman and father of Schlumph’s sweetheart, Sonja, in the woods late at night. Schlumph is visited in prison by the man who arrested him, Sergeant Studer, who discovers that the young man has attempted suicide. After rescuing him, Studer decides to look into the case in more detail, as he’s fairly convinced that Schlumph didn’t commit the crime.
First, Studer has to convince the investigating magistrate to authorize him to take this course, which Studer realises isn’t going to be easy as the man is a stickler for procedure and wants the case tidied away with no fuss.
“Sergeant Studer, I would like to ask you, in all politeness, what you think you are doing? Could you explain how you cam to involve yourself without authorization – I repeat, without authorization — in a case which…”
The examining magistrate broke off, though he couldn’t have said why himself. The man on the chair before him was a detective, a simple policeman. He was middle-aged and there was nothing special about him: a shirt with a soft collar, a grey suit that had gone slightly baggy in places because the body inside it was fat. He had a thin, pale face with a moustache covering his mouth so that you didn’t know whether he was smiling or not. And this simple policeman was sitting there in the chair, legs apart, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped…
The Magistrate himself couldn’t have said why he suddenly adopted a slightly warmer tone.
Sure enough, Studer is allowed to investigate the case, and so travels to Gerzenstein, a microcosm of Swiss village life, where everyone listens to the radio all day and sounds like the announcer, and where every other building is a shop or small business. Studer is somewhat stifled by the atmosphere:
God, people were the same everywhere. People in Switzerland tended to keep their little indiscretions very much to themselves, but as long as they didn’t impinge upon other people’s lives, nothing was said…….Unless something unexpected happened. Such as a murder. And a murder needed a murderer, like bread needed butter. Otherwise people would complain. And if the presumed guilty party tries to hang himself, and a detective comes along who is stubborn as a mule, then it can happen that al the little irregularities there are in everyone’s life suddenly become important. You work with them, like a bricklayer with bricks, to erect a building. A building? Let’s say a wall just for the moment.
“Perhaps you remember the case of that dental technician in Austria? Put his leg on a chopping block and hacked away at it until it was left hanging by a scrap of flesh, just to pocket a huge sum from the insurance. There was a big trial.”
“Well yes,” the examining magistrate said, “in Austria. But we’re in Switzerland here.”
“People are the same everywhere”, Studer sighed.
For the rest of the novel, Studer, helped by the local police chief, works on the shooting, with a mixture of forensics, witness interviews, psychological insight and dogged persistence. Dreams and hallucinations begin to come into play – Studer’s wife and Sonja both have a tendency to stay up all night reading novels – which renders them into a dream-like state by day. Studer himself drinks too much and later becomes ill with an infection, causing him to vividly imagine various scenarios that may have led to the murder, and providing some flashes of inspiration.
At its heart, though, the book is a classic story of a murder, some suspects, some social observations, and a neat solution. What makes it special, and fresh more than 70 years later, is its straightforward truthfulness, lack of pretension and yet, despite these pragmatic aspects, its hints of other worlds through which Studer’s perceptions are filtered.
What had people done with their own voices? Had they been infected by the radio? Had the wireless sets in Gerzenstein triggered off a new epidemic: voice-swapping?
My final words of the review part of this post are in praise of the translator, Mike Martin, through whose interpretation the novel reads as if it were written yesterday. I also put in a note of thanks to the publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, which since 2004 have published all five of Glauser’s Studer novels in English translations (all, I believe, by Mike Martin).
Friedrich Glauser was born in Vienna in 1896, and died aged 42, a few days before he was due to be married. He was a schizophrenic, addicted to morphine and opium, and spent much of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and in prison for forging prescriptions. He spent two years in the Foreign Legion in North Africa, and worked as a coal miner, gardener, labourer and hospital orderly.
Der Bund: Glauser has elevated his material to an exquisite artistic level, a master of psychological analysis, a warm, sensitive and wonderfully observant writer.
Nationalzeitung Basel: Perfect characterization, brilliant portrayal of humour and irony against the dark, brooding background of small-town life.
Bayerische Rundfunk: Friedrich Glauser is a remarkable discovery. An ability to translate an erratic, obsessive life into language that seduces by its intimacy. A reflection of his suffering and compassion.
Glauser's books reviewed at Euro Crimeand Reviewing the Evidence.