In Basel (not Brüges)

Sam Spade investigates (Humphrey Bogart smoulders) in The Maltese Falcon, 1941.

“When I see you turn the corner, I will know the target is coming just behind,” he said, “and then I will begin shooting.” It was my first day on the job and I wanted everything spelled out clearly.

“Won’t they mind?” I asked. But my concerns were brushed aside. This was Switzerland, nobody gets excited here, except, sometimes about football.

I had been roped in to help a private detective with some surveillance. I admit I took little persuasion. I’m usually up for something new. And it might provide some useful material for the book after the current one.

And wandering the streets of Basel is a pleasant way to pass time. I always feel I’ve really arrived in the city when I walk out the back door of a particular Migros supermarket, on to a quiet side street where bird song is louder than traffic or trams, and where smartly dressed, but normal-looking people cycle past carrying musical instruments. All very calm and cultured.

The case we were on had been particularly difficult and drawn out. The challenge was to gather information on the behaviour of the target – timings, dates, meetings, etc – and then document it all photographically. I can’t go into all the details, but there were strong passions driving it – hate and jealousy, and the small matter of fraud.

Having a core of hatred as the motivator behind an investigation is great news for the detective. It means that a protracted expensive surveillance campaign with few results may receive continued financial backing. What you might call a reassuringly nice little earner.

The day’s mission was to photograph the target entering a building, thus proving they’d been there and helping to document a pattern of behaviour. Sounded easy enough, but it had been difficult to get a clear face shot in a recognisable context.

Also, after a long period of grace (possibly not the right word) the watcher’s cover had finally been blown. Not surprising really. He’d been lurking amongst building workers for so long it was inevitable people would notice. Especially when the building work finished. And not just the target either. It was getting a bit embarrassing for him to be on the receiving end of so many quizzical or openly contemptuous glances from local traders.

So the covert surveillance was not so covert these days. The target tended to spot the photographer and to move quickly and turn away, thus preventing a decent photograph. (Put like this, it does sound a bit more like harassment than surveillance.)

That’s where I came in. I was to be a warning that the target was approaching – allowing the photographer to lie in wait out of sight until the last moment. I was to be in position to delay the target if necessary. You know, a confused foreigner with a map and a timid “Entschuldigen Sie, bitte…”

But what if we were caught? What if my undercover activity was exposed? Imagine the anger and violence that could rain down upon me. What happens if your target catches you out? Had it ever happened to my boss?

Yes,” he admitted it had. And? “Well, nothing really. People sometimes open their mouths in an O. If they’re really shocked, they sometimes open their eyes wider and raise their eyebrows. This is Basel, after all.”

So not exactly James Bond, or even Sam Spade. But cometh the hour…

I stood in the rain and waited for my cue.

And waited…

“It’s off,” he tells me. “Can’t take good photographs in the rain.”

I look sceptical. How do private detectives ever get anything done outside the confines of the world’s driest deserts, I wonder. Least of all in rainy Basel.

He shrugs. Rainy days are no good. The client understands.

Ah yes. I begin to understand why the investigation drags on, and perhaps why the detective is not perceived as such a threat by the target.

Maybe he fulfills a role more akin to the old-fashioned sin eater. You parcel out your rage and resentment, and then subcontract it to the detective agency. Then you can relax and get on with your life for a modest monthly fee, content that your enemy is being attended to.

So does that make it an honourable profession? Didn’t feel like one.

Is it akin to the role of the intrepid investigative journalist/prying tabloid hack? I take the fifth.

Either way I was relieved by the rain. Saved from myself, more likely than not.

In other news:

Here’s a website that will show you the world differently – Molecular Expressions.

And – You can still smoke in bars in Basel. But only till April 1st in Basel Land, and till May1st in Basel Stadt and the rest of Switzerland. So get here quick, or hold off till then, depending on your taste. For myself, I’m glad Ireland led the way, and that Britain has followed.

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2 Comments

Filed under life

2 responses to “In Basel (not Brüges)

  1. Thanks for this. The image of cultured Basel is great. It’s been ages since I’ve heard mention of Migros! A fascinating day. So did your boss for the day go to a bar for a cigarette in the end? I would say head to Basel before the ban, but I think it’s impossible for anyone from the UK or Ireland to enjoy a cigarette in a pub, even when legal. The ban’s made it too habitual not to. And it would be a shame not to watch the cellists go by on their bicycles while you were enjoying a cigarette. So maybe I’ll change my advice: post-ban!

  2. “Fame, we may understand is no sure test of merit, but only a probability of such: it is an accident, not a property of a man.”

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