Katharina Berlinger’s “Chiffren im Schnee” is a mix between detective and spy novel. Like many whodunits and spy-stories, it is unputdownable. No better season to read it than right now, when te evenings are long.
Most of the action takes place in a hotel in the Swiss Alps during the Christmas season. But by the time Christmas arrives, there have already been casualties. By then, reader and main characters are caught up in trying to figure out what is happening, why, and who is responsible.
Anna Staufer, the novel’s main character, works as “hotel gouvernante”(kind of head housekeeping) at the Grand Hotel Splendid. In the novel’s first chapter, the reader is introduced to her, while Anna is called to a small suit at the upper-class hotel. The rooms have been wrecked; their occupant is found unconscious.
Everybody presumes the aristocratic guest has had a wild night, though she denies it. Anna jots down a few lines in the notebook she uses for poetic impressions, interesting events, hotel business. The rooms are so damaged, they remain shut for the rest of the summer season and will be repaired before the hotel reopens for the winter season.
The story is told in third person, with Anna as main character. Now and again this does change. One of the changes takes place towards the end of the first chapter. It serves to introduce one of the other characters as well as a different setting: a London hospital.
Lieutenant Christian Wyndham is the sole heir of an aunt who lived in Switzerland. An invalid, he decides to retreat to Switzerland, translate Japanese poetry, and fulfill a dream of seeing the Alps. His cousin Georgina, her fiancé, former employers, all recommend the Grand Hotel Splendid.
In November, Anna returns to her main job at the hotel. She finds it slowly filling with an odd mix of regular and new staff, as well as guests from all over the world. From her friend Henning, a barkeeper, Anna learns two of her favourite guests died unexpectedly in France during the late summer. Anna does not believe the official story. Especially, when Henning mentions a special branch of France’s police force was involved.
The plot thickens when Wyndham’s hotel suit, the same set of rooms which were damaged during the summer, is visited at night. Anna and Wyndham join forces to find out what is going on. Georgina turns up, as does the first body.
The setting and a few stock characters do remind one of that wonderful film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. This film was set in the thirties. On page 295 of the novel, the exact time frame is revealed. One of the American characters wishes Wyndham the best for 1914.
With practically all crimes and mysteries solved, a rapid pace, realistic setting, twists and surprising turns, flawed yet sympathetic main characters, this first novel is an extremely good read. Though being a cross between a Miss Marple and James Bond story, it does not share the latter’s improbabilities nor super-heroes. Nor does it glorify the spy business.
With its Swiss Alps setting and main events taking place during the winter holidays, it is a very entertaining Christmas read. So it was rather disappointing to discover “Chiffren im Schnee” is only available in German.
“Chiffren im Schnee”, Katharina Berlinger, 303 pp, Herman-Josef Emons Verlag, 2012. Available through Amazon in hard back, paper back, kindle version.