Kim Hays was born to love two things: adventure and mystery novels. Though she was born in Connecticut, she lived all over the southern United States, Puerto Rico, and Vancouver, Canada, before college. Her mother, a librarian, fed her a hearty diet of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books before her reading matured to Agatha Christie and her favorite mystery author, Josephine Tey. After undergrad at Harvard, Hays spent a year in Sweden, did her Ph.D. in sociology at UC Berkeley, and then relocated to Bern, Switzerland, with her Swiss husband, where she’s lived for over 30 years as an educator, journalist, and cross-cultural trainer.
All these elements fertilize the characters, setting, and themes of her debut novel, Pesticide, a police procedural that centers on an organic farming scandal and the nuances of policing in Switzerland’s capital, Bern. Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli are two investigators assigned to two seemingly unrelated murders, but their dogged work ethic reveals a broader, messier conspiracy with layered consequences. As a well-read mystery lover, Hays wanted Pesticide to go beyond many of the mystery genre tropes, which can often sacrifice character for the sake of plot or rely on big twists and surprises rather than the investigative work behind solving them.
“Well, the truth is, the first thing I want is for [readers] to be entertained!” she says with a laugh. “I’m certainly drawn to both plot and people. What I look forward to [in a] mystery is I want to know what’s happening and to really care about who it’s happening to, not just the main protagonist.”
Hays wrote her sociology thesis on personal ethics and defining what it means to be a good person across different cultures. Readers can glimpse the theory underlying her tangled cast of characters; they never quite fit into the black-and-white categories of good and evil. Giuliana, inspired by one of Hays’ neighbors, comes from a family of lawyers and believes in law enforcement as a system of good, but to an extent that can cloud her judgment and alienate her journalist husband. Renzo seems initially like a stereotypical Italian man steeped in machismo, but he reveals himself as sensitive, loving to his children, and sympathetic when interviewing the victims’ families.
Both lead characters come off as well-meaning workaholics whose dedication to their sleuthing pays off professionally but at a cost to their personal relationships. A mutual attraction simmers beneath their interactions, which further complicates their work and home lives. Hays cushions these moments among suspenseful interviews with drug cartel leaders, former friends, and various colleagues. Even the murder victims—Simu, a self-centered cannabis dealer, and Frank, the “hippie” farmer he was working with—have complicated pasts.
While Giuliana is certainly not the lone wolf typical of many murder mystery protagonists, her internal voice is the strongest throughout the book. The reader remains close to her as she ponders the strain on her marriage, safety of her children, and how to confront her own biases in police work. The book is dialogue-heavy, and the most human writing manifests in vulnerable declarations as Giuliana realizes her blind spots, as Hays writes toward the end of the book, when she confronts her colleague Jonas:
“Yes, I do,” Giuliana said, her eyes never leaving his face. “I know what it’s like to feel terrified and helpless and to shake with rage, and I know what it’s like to want to punish someone for making me feel that way. Every member of the police does,” she said. But she didn’t go on. There was no point in adding the obvious message about self-control. Jonas knew exactly what he’d done wrong, which was why he’d thrown his baton on the ground. She remembered Hirschi saying he’d seen terror in the young cop’s eyes. Terror for himself, yes. But was that all he’d felt?
Besides playing with character expectations, Hays also wanted to throw a red herring or two into the mix to challenge reader notions of what is legal versus what is bad.
Before she wrote Pesticide, Hays contributed to English-language magazines in Bern. One topic she explored was organic farming, and she has played into its potential for scandal, consulting sources in farming and law enforcement about how one might swindle the Swiss government via produce.
A major crop Hays includes, despite its illegal status in Switzerland, is cannabis. “I started thinking about and reading about scams. The cannabis was really because I was thinking, Where is the crime in organic farming? The first thing you might think about is marijuana.” But as with many of Hays’ characters, cannabis won’t play the role you might think it would.
Pesticide earned a coveted Kirkus star for its “punchy, evocative prose” that “looks beneath Switzerland’s veneer of antiseptic quaintness to find grungy atmospherics,” paired with “first-rate” plotting and fully-realized characters. Discussing the bureaucracy for certifying Swiss organic produce might feel dull in less capable hands, but all details have their place. Hays also sprinkles some little-known facts throughout the book that further complicate Switzerland’s reputation as a neutral, prosperous place, such as the harrowing detail of women not gaining the right to vote until 1971.
Pesticide was shortlisted for the 2020 Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger Award, and Giuliana and Renzo’s story is far from over. A sequel, Sons and Brothers, will be published in April 2023, as the two continue navigating their romantic feelings while dealing with another aspect of Switzerland’s dark side—the trafficking of Swiss children onto farms as cheap labor.
Despite its picturesque mountains and expensive watches, Hays says, Switzerland has flaws like anywhere else. “Switzerland is a tiny country—New York City is bigger in terms of population. So I don’t expect people to know very much about it; I think people’s vision of it is very stereotyped. It’s not that I’m trying to say it’s evil, but just to say, Look, this is a real place. The whole society works like any society, good and bad.”
Amelia Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn with bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay City News, and Leafly.