#164: On Failing to Engage with “the Swedish John Dickson Carr” – Deadly Reunion (1975) by Jan Ekström [trans. Joan Tate 1983]

Given that John Dickson Carr — who would have been 110 at the end of the month, folks — published seventy-eight books over a 41 year career that encompassed such joys as Till Death Do Us Part and such nadirs as Papa La-Bas, there’s probably no-one who couldn’t be compared to him at some point in his career.  So when Swedish writer Jan Ekström’s 1975 novel Ättestupan is translated into English and the synopsis opens with the tantalising promise ‘Often called the Swedish John Dickson Carr…’ well, you’re going to get a lot of peoples’ attentions even though it doesn’t at first glance really tell you anything.

The book in question — under the English title Deadly Reunion, and also published as The Ancestral Precipice because…reasons — concerns the avaricious family of an absurdly wealthy old harpy gathering at her house for her 90th birthday celebrations.  Two deaths ensue, one of them with impossible overtones, and all manner of extra complications occur to confound Inspector Bertil Durell, playing the detective novel game of the quid pro quo of obfuscation and delightful revelation…I should by almost any measure absolutely love it.  I don’t, not by a long chalk.  And, as it’s 1975 over at Past Offences this month, I’m going to tell you why.  In glorious, tedious detail.

Part of the problem is this:

precipice-tree

Yup, that’s four generations of family tree, given to you before even a word of the plot reaches your eyes, and straight away it felt like I was about to sit some kind of exam where I’d need to recall the exact relationship between Malin and Charlene, and it virtually guaranteed there’d be a several moments of having to stop and think “okay, so if he’s married to her and she’s their cousin but this one is having an affair with that one…aren’t they too closely related for that?  Oh, no, wait, he’s her second husband, so the girl is the first cousin of his second cousin, so when they marry…yeah, no, that’s still not going to work…”.  Thank blimey the cat’s on there, is all I can say.

I hate hate hate this kind of overly-complex interconnectivity in detective fiction.  If your readers have to stop to figure out who everyone is relative to everyone else — and, if you’re providing this sort of diagram, rest assured they will have to — then you as an author are deliberately taking your readers out of the narrative.  You’ve failed, in short.  Take whatever phase of Carr’s career you like, you never have this problem with his books; you know who everyone is (or at least who they’re supposed to appear to be…) and you can draw the lines between them easily and clearly.  I don’t recall Carr dumping a family tree on you at any stage, but authors have dealt with casts easily this large and kept everyone distinct so we know it can be done.  So, well, a point against Ekström, but let’s see how he handles it.

So, chapter 1, from the perspective of Ulla — 53, married to Fredrik, oldest living child of Aunt Charotte…hang on, check the family tree…oh, wait, she’s not her child, okay, that makes sense now.  Okay, Ulla, 53, married to Fredrik, three children — the oldest also being called Charlotte who’s married to John, they have a daughter called Charlene…y’know what, let’s just read the book.  Now Ulla — quite apart from being the noise made by the Martians in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds — is the most irritating character in mystery fiction.  Don’t believe me?  She spends the first three pages dividing up sausages and meatballs — they’re having dinner — on her plate to represent the various wings of the family to work out who might get the most money when the old lady dies.

The Svenssons were ahead on total points, but the points might have to be averaged out per person.  There was one more Svensson than Bernheim — no, two more — she had completely forgotten John.  That would bring the Svensson average down below the Bernheim.  She now gave up in confusion when she realised that her bits of sausage and meatball could not contend with the new factor.

Okay, I get she might not be intended as likable, but this is chapter 1, for god’s sake, when you’re supposed to settle people in.  When Aunt Charlotte tells her to stop playing with her food and eat some cucumber because it contains minerals and she starts wondering if ‘minerals’ is a hint at ‘money’ and so she’ll receive more money if she keeps the old lady happy (the cucumber stood for Aunt Charlotte, see, precisely to set up this agony)…hairy Aaron, I was ready to give up already.  Oh, and around this we get 17 character names and relationships dumped on us in a half page so that we know who everyone is.  Then there’s some kind of set to because two characters who might not be in a relationship (check the family tree…oh, dear god, why is there a Sigrid on there?) do…something (did they kiss?  That seems…wait, who was it again and is there…so this line means they’re….cousins?) and everyone sits there scoring points and being generally horrible to each other while Ulla (The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million-to-one…) frets and makes me want to set fire to the book.

deadly-reunionSuch a jejune opening bodes poorly, and is indicative of much of what follows.  We get chapters from different characters’ perspectives (sort of), all in the third person apart from Veronica (or Vera?) who — I don’t know why — is written in the first person, and they’re just the most unpleasant bunch of arseholes I’ve yet encountered in print.  And, again, this makes the Carr comparison look even lazier, because Carr would lay things out clearly — usually it got more confusing later on, but he always starts well, and there’s someone for you to at least sympathise with or to feel some affinity for before Fell or Merrivale or whoever his detective is turn up and starts laying ghosts or slaying demons.  If Ekström doesn’t want you to feel sympathy for his characters — and I hope he doesn’t — then fine, but it makes a very tough reading experience when there’s no-one to care about.  The characters here keep saying things like:

“If you don’t redeem the mortgages, Martin, then we’ll be owners of the forestland, too.  But I’ll demand that you redeem them, and then they’ll have to be valued and auctioned if necessary — you never know, but in the end I might take my share of the forest.  What do you think, Ulla?”

Ulla!!  Sorry, where was I?  Oh, yes — they keep bludgeoning each other with just this most unpleasant posturing and pecuniary pettiness, and it’s actually quite horrible to have to read.  And this would be…acceptable, let’s say…if there was some consistency in them as characters, but when one of them shoots their own son and then apparently gases himself in his bedroom, his wife can’t accept the idea of him committing suicide because “He was much too positive — towards everything”.  And, it should be pointed out, the perceived positivity extends so far in her estimations of him that she can quite easily believe he’d shoot his own son — infanticide being among the most upbeat of crimes, I think we can all agree — but not suicide, oh no.

Everything is miserable, everyone is miserable…about the only thing it really has in common with Carr at all is the sudden love story that just appears, like, completely out of nowhere.  Come the end, Durell even admits that he has no evidence for half of his explanation of the crimes, and we’re told that the guilty party owned up to them and everything was fine…but the key piece of supposition is…honestly…just…so…feeble.  And I’m not even sure the eventual scheme of the two murders makes sense once you look at it — what precisely was the point of that manner of the second death?  A suicide that doesn’t look like a suicide is pointless, surely.  I have no doubt I missed something, as I’d lost almost all patience with this by then, but I run the risk of veering into spoilers, so shall cease and desist.

That locked room murder, though, does have the fingerprints of Carr all over it; it’s a beautifully canny little method, the disguising of which doesn’t ring true at all, but I’ve forgiven far worse in the past, and establishes the main idea clearly and in brilliant disguise.  Only right there — right at the death, as it were — does Ekström show any tendency towards the flattering sobriquet bestowed upon him.  I think I’ve had enough of the pretenders, and might just have to go for the man himself next time out…

~

It should be pointed out that John Norris and TomCat, both of who are far more trustworthy than I, really enjoyed this, and both point out that Ekström may be better served by looking elsewhere for comparisons, so it’s worth considering the majority opinion before dismissing it too lightly…

John @ Pretty Sinister: The story is filled with the kind of brooding aura and dark family secrets that fill the pages of the cases of Lew Archer. When I saw the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I also noted the pervading MacDonald-like atmosphere that imbued that film.  I wonder if Stieg Larsson was familiar with the mystery novels of Ekström who appears to have been influenced not only by Carr but by Ross Macdonald.  Fans of Larrson, Carr or Macdonald will find plenty to admire in The Ancestral Precipice, a real puzzler with plenty of twists and a good example of the least likely suspect revealed as the killer in the final pages.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: However, the plot’s exposition is as clever and twisty as those of Ekström’s predecessors, and I would place the book a lot closer to Christianna Brand than Carr – who provided a wonderful blurb for this novel, “a beautifully twisted, many-colored skein which it was a pleasure to try to unravel.” Do I agree with her. Yes! Let’s find out.

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29 thoughts on “#164: On Failing to Engage with “the Swedish John Dickson Carr” – Deadly Reunion (1975) by Jan Ekström [trans. Joan Tate 1983]

  1. Holy cow, this book is clearly not for you mate! I am not overly keen on books that rely on massive family trees to explain their dynamics and tend to blank that stuff out. I mean, I will make the effort for Tolstoi maybe but that is about where I draw the line!

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    • It’s been a while since I attempted one, but it turns out I should trust my better judgement! All is not lost; at least I know now that I need not lament the absence of any other Ekström translations…every cloud, and all that…

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    • Yeah, I’d struggle to convince you that it needs to be read. It’s…fine, but by no means interesting or essential enough to be worth the effort. Time is better spent on other books, in my opinion.

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  2. Hairy Aaron! (You’re gonna try and make that a thing now, aren’t you?) You did give me a laugh. But I also just realized that Carr simply did not trade in large families, did he? I can’t recall a one. Ngaio Marsh did, though, but even she was never so obfuscating.

    I was a big fan of soap operas and Dickens, but both of those have the weight to carry something akin to your fifth paragraph. The notion of each chapter being told from a different character’s point of view also puts me in mind of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which, after five enormous volumes, (with two more on the way —if the dude can live long enough) has devolved into something approaching incomprehension. And let’s not forget those interminable passages in LOTR where Tolkien describes something using Elven, Dwarfish AND Human terms.

    So thanks for taking a Swedish bullet for the rest of us . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • My experience of Scandnavian writers hasn’t been great to date — I did not get on with Sjöwall and Wahlöö, did not love the eventual direction of Ulf Durling’s Hard Cheese (though the first section was marvellous), fought my through through half a Jo Nesbø book, and eventually had to admit defeat with a Henning Mankell…not that I’m writing that region off, but I’ve yet to find anything to excite me about it either. And don’t get me started on Tolkein.

      Hairy Aaron will be a thing, Brad. It’s simply your choice how soon you get on board with it…do you want to be an innovator, or a follower? That’s what you need to ask yourself…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nothing to comment on this book/writer specifically, but regarding complex family trees: That doesn’t look *too* complex, actually. You’ll see quite a lot of +/- this size in Japanese mystery fiction, especially those around WWII. Seishi YOKOMIZO is especially a big fan of them. The Inugami Clan (the one available in English) has a fairly complex one too.

    Could be a cultural thing actually, now I think of it. The ‘greater’ family has probably have a bigger role in Asian cultures than Western cultures, which you can for example see in the fact that a language like Chinese has very specific names for family members (i.e. one word for grandmother on father’s side, and a different one for the mother’s side etc.). In the Asian languages/cultures I have some knowledge of (Japanese/Chinese/Korean), utterances are also very ‘context’-specific, and it’s always important to know who you’re talking to, and the interpersonal relations between you, the listener and other parties. So complex human relations, especially of the family kind, might be more common in those cultures, and by extension, their fiction.

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    • I think I’d have more patience with the family tree thing if we weren’t just dumped all the characters at once right at the very start in a way that immediately required us to know who they were, what their relationships were, and how they were defined relative to each other. I’ve no doubt there are ‘big family’ novels out there that I’ve njoyed (thinking, thinking…), but whatever I have read would have the decency to introduce a few characters at a time or — at the very least — reinforce those relationships in some way in their narrative. Here it’s just “Here they are, deal with it” and that’s all that’s ever done, like the tree makes them distinct, or even distinctive. Too lazy by half, frankly!

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    • Weeeell, I could return to it in the near future, let me see how I feel — I’ve just read The Devil in Velvet, which is going to be the subject of my Tuesday NIght Blogers post this week, and it’s quite an unusual experience, let me tell you.

      Or, hmmm, I could do a re-evaluation of Papa La-Bas for the Carr 110 celebrations next week…I shall think on this…

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      • Oooh, no, I’m dying for a review of The Devil in Velvet. It’s one of those books that I don’t quite know where to place – I think I’ve read some comments that say its quite good.
        One of Carr’s best book titles, anyway.

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  4. I agree that branding Ekström as the Swedish John Dickson Carr,” just because he wrote a locked room mystery, was a mistake. It’s the same as calling every female crime novelist the next Agatha Christie, because they’re women whose work can be categorized as whodunits. Yes, it might attract readers who would otherwise not be aware of the book or author, but such comparisons rarely stands. And thus disappointment follows.

    It’s why so many of us were soul-crushingly disappointed by The Lord of Misrule. We were promised the kind of detective stories you could’ve expected from Chesterton, if he had written full-length Father Brown novels. So, yes, comparing Ekström with Carr was idiotic, because Carr’s work may be the farthest removed from Scandinavian crime-fiction. So you have to keep that in mind when picking up a book because it compared to one of your favorite mystery authors.

    That being said, I don’t remember the family relationships being overly complex or confusing at all. But than again, I might have been paying closer attention to the locked room/plot than to the cast of characters.

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    • I remember Noah doing a post about a J.J. Connington novel and sayting there was one aspect early on that he couldn’t get past and it soured the book for him, and I had that distinct feeling about this when I opened it and was info-dumped an entire family on the second page. I also feel like I’ve read a lot of “everyone is mysterious and there are lots of secrets” mysteries lately, too, and was perhaps a little bored of these ideas coming into this. Thankfully I’ve just finished The Devil in Velvet and that’s very much not that kind of book…

      You make an excellent point about Halter and TLoM. See, my first was The Fourth Door, and I just read it because the central puzzle — man locked in room, door opened later and not only is he murdered but it’s actually someone else — sounded so cool. I came to Halter purely to see what he could do in his own right, not because he promised to be another Carr or Chesterton (hell, the Chesterton comparison would have put me off!). Aaah, but that I could have extended Ekström the same courtesy, eh?

      Hm. Maybe I need to come back to this in a year or so and see how I feel about it then. Dammit, TC, now you’ve got me thinking… 🙂

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  5. Thanks for the review… I seemed to think that my local library had a copy of this novel, but I can’t seem to find it. I suppose if you didn’t like “this most unpleasant posturing and pecuniary pettiness” you probably wouldn’t like J.J. Connington’s ‘Castleford Conundrum’? Talking about complex interrelationships, I just completed over my Kindle Frances Noyes Hart’s ‘Hide in the Dark’, which featured 13 individuals consisting of 5 couples and 1 love triangle, and I spent the first half of the novel flipping back to the list of characters at the start every time someone spoke. 😦

    On a positive note, some of my Carr packages have arrived, so it would be something by him in time for his birthday bash… 🙂

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    • My main issue with the posturing and pecuniary pettiness was that there was no-one — not a single character — in the book to actually root for. Even the detective was just sort of there because a detective was needed, not to provide some unopposable force like Poirot or Fell who would cleave their way to the truth amidst all the obfuscation thrown at them. He just…turns up, ask some questions…sort of appears to fall in love with one of the suspects, asks some questions…comes up with a solution out of nothing, leaves. Seriously, Jan, give us someoneto care about!

      And, again, I can handle a large family with many and complex connections between them all, but don’t imagine you’ve done your job because you give me a family tree on page 1 and then dump everyone into a single paragraph on page 3 — a bit of care would have gone a long way.

      Ah, well, what’s done is done. Looking forward to whatever Carr you opt for…and still trying to figure out what I’m going to do myself!

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      • I was hoping to try out ‘Arabian Night Murders’ but that particular package is still bobbing slowly over the ocean… So I’ve settled for ‘Hag’s Nook’.

        Incidentally, is a new Halter translation in the pipeline over at LRI? Something about vampirish trees? 😀

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        • It is the translation of ” L’arbre aux doigts tordus” which means “The tree with twisted branches”.
          Thus John Pugmire has somewhat modified the title !

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        • There’s only about a week till the end of November…! I just purchased a few more LRI novels over the past few days: ‘Lord of Misrule’ and ‘Riddle of Monte Verita’. The title does seem to be a paraphrase of the original French title.

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  6. I might give this one a go, if only because it seems to divide people so much- which is often (but not always) the sign of an interesting book.
    I agree with TomCat- I think anointing any writer ‘the new Christie’ or ‘Sweden’s answer to Dickson Carr” etc in blurbs does a disservice. It’s very rare that they will be half as good as the writer they are being compared to, and I’m inclined to judge a book more critically when such claims are made. It’s also lazy writing. I remember some critics called Tom Wolfe the ‘New Dickens’ in the 80s. And he is very far from that.
    In other news I’m halfway through your recently reviewed ‘Magpie Murders’ and enjoying it very much.

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    • Tom Wolfe was supposed to be the new Dickens?! Wow, expectation much?!!

      Maybe going into Deadly Reunion with lessened expectations is the way forward, but I can’t advise that you go to any huge efforts to get it. I’m glad at least to have made you curious, because I know the authors other bloggers have disliked who I have adored (Rupert Penny, say) and am aware of how much someone might miss out on something fabulous to them if they take me at my word. On which note, I’m glad MM is working out for you — will be intersted to see what you make of it when you’re done.

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  7. Lots of comments to respond to here. Let’s hope I don’t make too big a meal of it. 🙂

    First, as to large families in Carr: Perhaps “Poison in Jest” would qualify?

    Second, I love family trees. For example, it’s almost the best bit in “After the Funeral” by AC. I love trying to make sense of them.

    Third, Ekström wasn’t called “The Swedish JDC” because this book is an impossible crime mystery. He was called that because ALL his novels are impossible crime mysteries.

    Fourth, it’s therefore a more apt comparison than clumping all Scandinavian authors together in one huge pile and trying to draw any conclusions from that. I mean, I dislike most of them as well, but Ekström’s and Sjöwall/Wahlöö’s output is so different that there is hardly any point in comparing them.

    Fifth, I haven’t read this because I had a poor experience with his novel “Ålkistan”, called his best by Swedish mystery authority Jan Broberg. So there’s that…

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    • It’s interesting to learn that there are more impossible crimes by Ekström — and interesting that this was the one chosen first for publication (possibly more were oplanned to follow?); I can’t help but wonder if more could have been made of Ekström’s form in impossibilities to bolster that Carr comparison…ah, well, we will never know.

      My lumping together of over Sandinavian authors was merely an addendum to this post — I’d not really intended it to prove anything, and had in fact considered adding something akin to “it’d be like saying my dislike of Marsh, Mitchell, Sayers, Chesterton, and Innes means that I therefore won’t enjoy classic detective fiction”. I was really more just making an observation! I’m trying to at least get a feel of the expectations of detective fiction from different countries, as I only really ‘know’ the UK and US scenes well enough to comment. There’s the odd bit of the French tradition and some Japanese schools that I’m beginning to appreciate, and it’s fascinating to learn of the different approaches. I’m hoping I’ll find a Scandinavian author who will really make me sit up and pay attention, but alas it has not yet been anyone I’ve read so far. one of these days… 🙂

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      • Since I am Swedish and I haven’t really found one either, you might be out of luck. 😉

        I like Bo Balderson, but he’s unlikely to ever be translated because his mysteries are based in the Swedish 70s political scene, and are also fairly Wodehouse-ian. The first one “Statsrådet och döden” (“The cabinet minister and death”) is a clever puzzle, but the later we get in Balderson’s oeuvre the bigger the focus on humour gets (and the less interesting the puzzles get).

        There were a few GA type authors in Sweden in the 40s, 50s and 60s (Ekström was a latecomer in this category), but when Sjöwall/Wahlöö burst on the scene everything turned to dust. Now it’s all just bleak and boring and child abuse and bleak and dull and ulcers and bleak. Sometimes, just to spice things up, it’s a woman protagonist who is bleak and boring and bleak and dull. And bleak.

        If you’re looking for GA authors, these are probably your best bets: Stieg Trenter, Maria Lang, H K Rönblom, Vic Suneson. They’re the big 4 in Swedish GA mystery fiction. In all cases, it’s best to start with their early works, because at least both Lang and Suneson degenerated quite a bit after a while in their careers. Lang became a HIBK writer, while Suneson became a run of the mill police proceduralist.

        Dunno what their availability in English is, though.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The ‘salivating male audience’: The #1975book round-up | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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