Author Kim Hays Dissects Typical Definitions Of What It Means To Be “Good” In New Detective Novel

By Kim Hays

We read crime fiction not only for its thrills and clever puzzles, but also for the satisfaction of seeing justice done. We like to know that, by the end of a story, the villain will be caught, and goodness restored. But what does “good” really mean? And is your idea of “goodness” the same as mine? These are questions I started thinking about long before I became a mystery writer.

When I was small, being good meant doing what my parents expected me to do. Then, at eight or nine, I read a children’s book called ‘Downright Dencey’. In it, a Quaker girl living on Nantucket in the early 1800s promises to teach reading and writing to Jetsam, a rough boy raised by the town drunk, as penance for having thrown a stone at him. Dencey’s mother forbids her to have anything to do with Jetsam, but Dencey decides that her mother is wrong. The right thing to do, she believes, is to keep her word and help Jetsam, not obey her mother—and that’s what she does. I remember what a revelation it was to me: that a child following her conscience could disobey her mother and still be a good girl. 

That book helped to kindle my interest in the different meanings of goodness, an interest that never really went away. So when I faced my first mystery, ‘Pesticide’, I had to figure out what was going to make my two main characters—a homicide detective and her assistant in the Bern police—genuine good guys. Luckily, I had a lot of ideas about morality to turn to, since my PhD dissertation had looked at different definitions of virtue. 

When I was planning my dissertation, I wanted to examine two completely different moral traditions being taught in similar ways. So I decided to spend nine months visiting three Quaker and three military boarding schools, living on each campus for several weeks as an observer and interviewing high-school students, teachers, and administrators.

First, though, I studied military training manuals for adults and spoke with professional Army officers on a military base; I also read about Quaker beliefs and talked with people who’d grown up in the Society of Friends (the correct name for Quakers). This helped me identify the qualities that the two groups admire most. Within the military moral tradition, these virtues are loyalty, selflessness, competence, integrity, and pride; in the Quaker moral tradition, they are equality, fellowship, simplicity, and peace. 

The virtues themselves are very different, but what’s similar is the way they are practiced. In both Quaker and military settings, young people learn what the virtues mean in their own lives by reinterpreting, criticizing, and arguing about them—and even rebelling against them. That’s part of how they work out what kind of adults they want to be.

This means that, in order for my detective Giuliana Linder and her colleague Renzo Donatelli to be good people, they have to reflect on their roles throughout ‘Pesticide’ and question themselves and their decisions often: not just in their professional lives but also outside work. Readers want their heroes to be quick-thinking and decisive, and real-life cops have to act fast. Still, real life has shown us what evil can result from cops not reflecting on what they are doing, and how much damage the demands of loyalty and pride can cause.

Throughout ‘Pesticide’, Giuliana and Renzo don’t just wonder if they’ve done the right thing—they also worry when they’ve made mistakes. It’s by reflecting on what they’re doing and what they’ve done that they are able to do what’s right in the end. And that makes them good guys.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about what makes for goodness in life as well as in books, and I’ve distilled two qualities that I think a good person should have. One is kindness, and the other is courage. A person who is kind but lacks courage won’t stand up to defend others. A person who is brave but unkind can be a danger to everyone. Together, though, kindness and courage, along with a certain amount of intelligence, can make anyone act heroically, even if it is on a small scale. Our own mundane daily life is the only place most of us get a chance to practice virtue anyway.

But, really, what better stage for heroism can there be?

‘Pesticide’ (Apr 19, 2022, Seventh Street Books) follows detectives Guiliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli as they work together to solve two mysterious deaths in the haunting Swiss city of Bern. 

When a rave on a hot summer night erupts into violent riots, a young man is found the next morning bludgeoned to death with a policeman’s club. Seasoned detective Giuliana Linder is assigned to the case. That same day, an elderly organic farmer turns up dead and drenched with pesticide. Enter Giuliana’s younger colleague Renzo Donatelli to investigate the second murder. Giuliana’s disappointment that they’re on two different cases is tinged with relief—her home life is complicated enough without having to deal with the distractingly attractive Renzo.

But when an unexpected discovery ties the two victims into a single case, Giuliana and Renzo are thrown closer together than ever before. Dangerously close. Will Giuliana be able to handle the threats to her marriage and to her assumptions about the police? If she wants to prevent another murder, she’ll have to put her life on the line—and her principles. 

Kim Hays lives in Bern, Switzerland. Her police procedural, ‘Pesticide’, the first mystery in the Polizei Bern series, will be published on April 19 by Seventh Street Books. Award-winning author Deborah Crombie has called it “a stand-out debut for 2022.”

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