#40: Hard Cheese (1971) by Ulf Durling [trans. Bertil Falk 2015]

Hard CheeseJohn Pugmire’s continuing mission to bring us the best unheralded impossible crime stories from around the globe under the guise of Locked Room International now adds Sweden to Japan (Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders), France (Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills, Henry Cauvin’s The Killing Needle, plus ongoing translations of the wonderful Paul Halter) and England (Derek Smith’s criminally ignored Whistle up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair).  Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling gives us something classically locked room – man dead in hotel room, door locked on the inside – and adds to it a knowing wink at just about every mystery convention going: the dying message, the inverted mystery, the had-I-but-known, the least likely suspect…even when these ideas aren’t being explicitly used, Durling is throwing out casual references to the tropes and traps of the genre.  Add name-checks to John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and others, and clearly here is a man who knows whereof he writes.

The book is split into three unequal sections, each told by a different first-person narrator.  First up is Johan Lundgren, one of a trio of elderly gentlemen who meet weekly to discuss crime novels:

We are supporters of the classic problem-story tradition, with sharp-wittedness as a condition for the detective (or the reader) to be able to solve the riddle.  We demand literary standards and a serious attitude from the author.  The plot may be complicated but not illogical.  The reader must have a fair chance to put his or her intelligence and cunning to the test.  All the suspects must be introduced in a fair and honest way, and all solutions and explanations must be well justified.  We demand that the detective solve his task with his grey cells, not with his clenched fists.

Of course, a real-life locked room murder in their small town is too good an opportunity to pass up on some theorising, especially as one of the men is the father of the detective in charge of the case, and so the meeting that week is spent kicking ideas around.  This first part is honestly marvellous: not only is Lundgren a wonderful narrator – frequently veering off-topic to mention some personal gripe or problem, to grumble about A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, or to boast about his robust health in his later years – but the speed and complexity of the deductions made by these essentially overgrown fanboys is a delightfully dizzying display of intelligent interpretation.  You’ll forgive me for appearing to overstate it, but there’s something really quite Ellery Queen about it all, spinning more and more ideas from the incrementally-revealed information (they keep unterrupting each other) until they’ve raised objection after objection to solution after solution and finally settle on what they feel is the correct method.

Just before the half-way stage, the narrative is picked up by the aforementioned detective, Gunnar Bergman, who is as much befuddled as he is disgusted with the crime, the town and himself:

Down at the station, old hags complain about being robbed of half-rotten bananas, alcoholics wander in and out, and there are still a few imbeciles who haven’t grasped the principle of driving on the right.  I take the opportunity for the last time to remind everyone that Stationsgatan has been a one way street since January 1, 1963.  We even put up a sign about it.

Through his noir-ish cynicism he gradually unveils the case (including a meeting with Lundgren that Lundgren deliberately excluded from his narration), showing the various police developments while rattling off hilarious lines about his colleagues and pretty much anyone else in the vicinity.  Such fulsome disdain proves a welcome change of pace after the gentle comedy of the first section, but as the plot began to kick in more – we’re seeing it as it develops now, after all – I found myself wishing that there was slightly more going on.  Towards the end of Bergman’s narrative the police hone in on and chase down a suspect in a manner that is drawn out and tortuous enough to remind me why I was put off Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and it all starts to feel very Swedish Noir – a slightly unusual chance of tone and pace, and thankfully not embelmatic of what is to come

The final 20% falls under the purview of Dr. Efraim Nylander, the third of the literary old gentlemen, who tidies up the ends and provides the final solution.  Of the narrators he’s the least distinct, but then he does have a lot to get through.  And as to the solution itself, hmmm.  It’s interesting to note that it doesn’t quite fulfil the conditions set out by Lundgren above, which I was a little disappointed by as it destroys the meta-expectation set up by Durling.  I’m not claiming it’s unfair per se – either in workings or in culprit – but it’s definitely not fair-play.  There are several points that seem introduced purely to add a level of complication that doesn’t really exist, and I can’t help but feel that these being fairly easily explained is a kind of consolation for you never really having the best chance of solving this (something acknowledged in the text, in fairness).  In my mind this ends up falling somewhere between Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead and Catherine Aird’s His Burial Too for the nature of the solution (not the workings, mind; I’m not just going to casually throw in that much of a spoiler) and the fact that there’s also little in the way of actual evidence, but it is entertainingly put together and very clever when you get over the disappointment of never having a chance at calling it yourself.

For a witty look at a genre a great many of us love you could scarcely do much better; as a locked room it won’t set your world on fire, but I do stil recommend it for the insight it provides of a slightly different take on a form most of us know from the Western Imperialist stranglehold of Carr, Rawson, etc.  Given the high standard of LRI’s output I have come to expect the best, too, so if you’re able to come at this with no preconceptions I’d love to hear your thoughts.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

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22 thoughts on “#40: Hard Cheese (1971) by Ulf Durling [trans. Bertil Falk 2015]

  1. It is full of wit and humour and there is a lot of satire on the detective novels. Hence, I enjoyed reading it. However, I was disappointed with the solution and it certainly is not a fair play mystery. I agree with your rating of 3. Also, in my opinion, the postscript was totally unnecessary.

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    • My interpretation of the postscript was that it was included to confirm the method of murder; just because the key things were present in the room, I suppose that didn’t necessarily mean the victim had died in the way intended (again, a lack of evidence), and so the postscript is there to tie up that particular thread. That was my take on it, anyway!

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  2. Interesting review that will help swell my wish list, but the comparison with Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Swedish Noir is a bit off-putting. Even if it’s just a small portion of the book. I’m still not entirely recovered from my first encounter with those two.

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    • Hey, I getcha. Due to my refusal to make snap judgements, I went back for second and third helpings of S&W. What – or indeed if – I was thinking is unfortunately lost to history. Hand on heart this is a lot more enjoyable an experience!

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  3. So is the slightly lower rating due to just the ending? Or is it to do more generally with the style of writing? Also I was intrigued by your phrase’ western imperialist stranglehold’. If this book is outside of this, how does it do the locked room differently, or perhaps the better question is what do it add to the genre?

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    • The first 75% is excellently written, it starts to tail off thereafter…but the 3 stars more accurately represents the feeling of the steady reveal of just how beyond you the reader solving this puzzle was. It is both more and less clever than I was expecting, and in both cases that was a bit of a disappointment.

      ‘Western Imperialist stranglehold’ is me being a little facetious: whenever you think of this kind of mystery you think of, say, Carr or Rawson, but the use of humour, the varying semi-unreliable narrators and the undeniably Scandinavian feel of this is just a corner of the genre I’ve not seen before. What does it add? As a locked room, not much, but the sense of fun throughout that first three-quarters is hard to either dismiss or ignoire.

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  4. Thanks for the review. 🙂 I’ve been waiting quite eagerly for this review to appear, partly driven by the desire to see how the latest(?) LRI publication fares, and partly to discover how one of my favourite foods makes it to the title of a mystery novel.

    On the former, the slightly stiff pricing of print-to-demand copies of LRI novels means that I tend to be more inclined to purchase a copy when the novel is not just good but great.

    On the latter, I might have missed something in your review – but is the title explained by the lactose-intolerance of a major character? Or was the victim injured by a frozen block of Nordic cheese…? 😛

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    • Ah, but then by buying it you’ll enable John Pugmire to buy the rights to future excellent releases…

      The lactose intolerance was a (really rather poor) joke of mine; yes, the title is explained, but you’d need to read the book (or the Amazon preview at the very least) to have it made clear. I, naturally, am spoiling nothing…

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  5. I’ve just started on this and will let you know what I think. 🙂 Given that I’ve read fewer LRI titles than you have, I might qualify as a reader with less preconceptions…

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      • Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂 I think the novel boasted of some narrative strengths: the way the first two voices played off was interesting and amusing.

        I think like you I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the resolution. I was less piqued by the technicality required; I was more sceptical as to how the perpetrator was identified. I can accept that there were certain clues preparing for the explanation as to how the crime was committed, but I struggled to see how the doctor knew who to look towards.

        Despite not having as high expectations as you might have towards LRI publications – if I had my own review site I would have accorded roughly the same rating for ‘Hard Cheese’. Its limitations keep it from hitting 4 stars, though I might be tempted to give it 0.5 star more.

        P.S. I typed a long comment on your post regarding fair-play fiction, but it got lost before I hit the button…

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        • I’m delighted you enjoyed it overall, Jonathan; it’s not perfect, but the narrative voices and some of the plot developments definitely warrant its being read. A slightly higher rating is perhaps due, but if I start getting into half stars and partial stars then I’m on a slippery slope (mathematician, remember). But it’s good to know you hopefully retain some trust in my opinions!

          And I feel your pain over that lost comment. Always interested to hear (read?) what you have to say, so if you can bring yourself to resuscitate any of it I have no doubt it will add to the conversation.

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  6. Being Swedish, I can only apologise for our very bad influence on the mystery genre as it is today. It’s all so grim and dull and grim and sad and grim and gritty and grim.

    And I’ve never read Ulf Durling myself, because I just can’t get into Swedish writers. Quite non-patriotic of me, but that’s how I roll… 🙂

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    • Haha, well this isn’t as grim as all that so you may like to consider giving it a go. Bertil Falk also translated a collection of Swedish impossible crime stories,so it could well be that you Swedes are doing more than your part and it’s just that no-one’s paying attention. Are there any Swedish authors you’d recommend at all? Let’s see if we can spread the word…

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  7. As I said, I don’t really read Swedish authors. For locked room aficionados I think Jan Ekström is the best bet. He was championed by Swedish mystery expert Jan Broberg, but I’ve only read one of his books and can’t really remember it – it was 15-20 years ago.

    Bo Balderson is the one Swedish author where I have the entire ouevre. His stories are however more towards the humoristic end – they take place in the Swedish political elite. Generally, only the first few books in that series are truly good mystery novels – the later ones are better as political satires than as mysteries. I don’t think any of his novels have appeared in English.

    The big 4 of classical Swedish mystery fiction are Stieg Trenter, H. K. Rönblom, Vic Suneson and Maria Lang. They are all adherents of the fair play genre, and might be worth picking up if there are any translations of them available.

    I know of Bertil Falk, though. He translated Carr’s Bencolin short stories into Swedish, and also some of Edward Hoch’s stories. So I’d certainly trust his opinions in locked room matters. 🙂

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    • Well for someone who doesn’t know their Swedish crime fiction you certainly know your Swedish crime fiction! I’ve heard of Ekstrom but have yet to track down any of his books; the others are completely new to me – many thanks, I shall get investigating…

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      • I used to read some Swedish mystery fiction before, when I was younger and didn’t know what was available in the big world (and when the internet wasn’t as all-pervasive as today, so you could only buy books in Sweden)…

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        • It is for this exact reason that I’ve read so much Tom Clancy. Except he’s not Swedish. Wow, the idea of “The Swedish Tom Clany” is curiously amusing to me.

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  8. Pingback: #55: The Human Flies (2010) by Hans Olav Lahlum [trans. Kari Dickson 2014] | The Invisible Event

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