The cover of Kim Hays’ debut novel, “Pesticide,” is penumbra-cast and amethyst-painted; its intriguing surface depicts a head of red lettuce thronged in shadow and magenta veins. The novel’s sprawling title, ill-famed for its hostile uses in agriculture, adopts a sinister malevolence in the way its translucent letters are kaleidoscoped with fuschia decay. Darkness interweaves into the white print’s opacity, mirroring the suspenseful, unfurling leaves of the novel’s crime-centric plot.
Set to release April 19, Hays’ debut mystery harbors a unique locationality within both the realm of contemporary fiction and the geography of reality. Its setting — the picturesque, charming city of Bern, Switzerland — produces idyllic scenes of verdant metropolitan landscapes and an ombré Aare river. Evoking an eco-medieval aesthetic, the city whimsically juxtaposes against the two brutal murders that take place in “Pesticide.” Surprisingly, though, the Swiss homicides are framed against a background of apparent antithesis: riots and organic farming.
“With ‘Pesticide,’ I wanted to come up with a topic that I am really interested in, which, in this case, is organic farming,” Hays said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “(It’s) a wonderful thing — it’s good for the environment. It’s very hard to be critical about organic farming, and I don’t feel critical about it. But I thought, ‘Let’s see what we can do with organic farming to present a certain amount of ambivalence about it.’ That was behind my development of the plot.”
While one of the novel’s murders occurs on Bern farmland, the other transpires post-rave and mid-riot: one body saturated in pesticide, the other bludgeoned in the streets. The sinuous mysteries of “Pesticide” are thus left to the deductions of detectives Renzo Donatelli and Giuliana Linder, who are tasked with tracing the meandering, crime-ridden bread crumbs of their respective cases.
Beyond the classic conflict-rife detective plot, however, “Pesticide” depicts its main characters entangled in an intricate web of magnetism, imbalance and dilemmas. Grappling simultaneously with labyrinthine forensic investigations and their blistering, complicated mutual attraction, Giuliana and Renzo are as much in the throes of romantic precariousness as they are in league as coworkers.
“Most novelists would agree: (it’s) the characters that carry fiction,” Hays mused. “It is very important to show people in a rounded life.” Her protagonists, she elaborated, are decisive and have agency — yet they too wrestle internally with the ethical quandaries inherent to their careers as detectives. “I wanted to show them really having doubts… I wanted them in their heads to think a lot about whether they had made the right decision,” she explained.
The convoluted idea of morality isn’t foreign to Hays, who completed her dissertation at UC Berkeley in sociology. Describing her study as an exploration of what it means to be a good person, Hays’ fieldwork analyzed the ethical behavior and moral traditions of two varieties of boarding schools. Her work was later converted into a successful book, and, while Hays no longer considers herself a sociologist, her experience as one has certainly granted her insight on the moral characterization of her protagonists: “I’m very interested in ideas of goodness,” Hays said. “Any mystery is about moral issues, goodness, justice, fairness and kindness.”
It isn’t difficult to translate Hays’ warm, amiable voice to the pages of “Pesticide,” which brim with lively animation. The paramount takeaway that she wants her readers to glean, she divulged, is a sense of enjoyment — one in the same vein, it seems, of the enthusiasm she herself harbored while writing the novel. If the enthrallment of her dynamic, driving prose says anything, it’s that it was birthed from a place of passion.
“The most important thing is that the reader is entertained,” she said. “They should want to finish it, and they should feel good.”
Hays is frank, however, about her writing challenges and the barriers to the publishing industry. The debut author spent seven years finding a publisher before being shortlisted for the 2020 Debut Dagger Award by the Crime Writers’ Association.
“It was not an easy decision to make because it took courage,” Hays admitted, when asked about making the transition to writing full-time. “But when my son went off to college, I just thought to myself … ‘If you want to write a novel, it’s now or never.’ ”
It appears her courage paid off. “Pesticide” is set to be distributed by the notoriously far-reaching Simon and Schuster, and its absorbing mystery is likely to rivet readers alongside its memorable, compelling characters. And what does she have to say to those who want to follow in her footsteps?
“It’s corny,” Hays laughed. “But all I can say to people is try not to give up.”