High summer, and a resident of an island tourist hotspot is found with the back of his head beaten in. The famous detective Asbjørn Krag is summoned, and as he attempts to solve the mystery of the murder we are taken into his confidence through the eyes of a nameless holiday-maker. Shenanigans, naturally, ensue. In many ways — some of which we’ll get to later — this is an archetypal GAD novel of crime and detection, but since we’re a good decade short of the form’s beginning we’re going to diverge from the expected tropes on more than a few occasions. Think of it as a piece of atmosphere with detective story interruptions for best results.
And, oh, that atmosphere!
We were all compelled to absolute inactivity, and had a lingering sense that little by little the heat was stifling all will and all energy. We might lie this way for years, for who could be bothered to so much as twitch a foot or lift a head or turn the pages of a novel? Even thought, which never rests, was dulled, for who could be bothered to think?
The language here is sublime, and a large chunk of the credit for this has to go to translator Lucy Moffatt; this has none of the uncomfortable elbows of the prose typically associated with this period — the conversations are stilted, of course, but that’s a hallmark of late 19th/early 20th century fiction — and instead flows beautifully. Such a great job has she done, when mention was first made of a carriage drawn by horses (as opposed to the motor car I has unconsciously been expecting) I was drawn up for a moment in confusion at the preceived anachronism.
Once you start thinking about the context of this, though, it becomes even more interesting. Early on, after the discovery of the body, the narrator mocks one of the other guests who is “searching [the ground] for tracks — as if that were the way crimes were solved these days!” — Sherlock Holmes, returned from his watery grave by now, would surely disagree, but it shows the genre in transition. And Krag has apparently already achieved some notoriety, since when it’s first mentioned that outside help should be called “we all knew who he meant” — welcome to the nascent days of the famous genius detective.
Krag himself is a delight. If our narrator spends a lot of time jumping at shadows and having a fit of the vapours at every development, it is Krag who really grounds events. Introduced in the most marvellous way, interrupting himself at times to indulge in his newfound passion for amateur photography, he could be a lazy collection of ticks and foibles masquerading as a character. Not so. In a manner anticipating M. Hercule Poirot he is keen to little observations — the victim’s hat, for instance — and obscure proclamations that prove both playfully fanciful (“My legal library contains an interesting example of a man over in England who managed to die fourteen times before he was eventually caught alive and well.”) and perfectly accurate (“I have used my eyes to make a person come to me,” for one). And we could be no more on the cusp of the Golden Age than at the moment he declares:
“You cannot imagine how impossible it can make an investigation when two cases that have no connection to one another get mixed up.”
Plot-wise we’re in fairly familiar territory, but again there’s a certain joy to be had — if this is your kind of thing — in picking up the subtle flashes of clewing, even if most of them are resolved quite quickly. The application of logic isn’t as dazzling as the best of Holmes, but there’s a functionality to it that is again paving the way for what’s only a decade-and-a-bit behind it on the road. You may be aware that this shares a key development with a famous GAD novel, and if you don’t know what that novel is I’d advise you not to find out before reading this (and please don’t mention or hint at it in the comments if you know) — the detection won’t blow you away, but all the ingredients are coming together in a fascinating mix of flavours.
A semi-impossible element with the eponymous chariot may or may not warrant investigation for the curious, but mainly what you have here is atmosphere and furtive innovation on the cusp of the most creative period in the history of fiction (no arguments, I’ve already defended 1937 — I’m allowed a declaration like this once in a while without backing it up). If the idea of a novel redolent in imagery such as “the ladies…were standing in a huddle terrifying each other” or a terrier with “eyes glaring angrily over a snout as round and black as the muzzle of a rifle” and light on detection appeals, jump on in. For puzzle nuts, take a star off the following and still give it a go; I can believe there’s more Sven Elvestad wrote under this nom de plume that warrants investigation, and would love to see more translated for our pleasure.
Novel Heights: While the opening sees the first oppressive heat of the summer, the author uses the change in weather and landscape and moves a lot of action to the night to create a tense and atmospheric read. The pace is is a little slow but probably what what you would expect from a book of the period. The investigations of the detective and unusual circumstances give a claustrophobic and disturbing feel as the story reaches its climax. The menace of the ‘Iron Chariot’ adds a potentially supernatural element to the story and the sinister occurrences take their toll on the narrator with an increasing feeling of oppression and sense of dread.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Trial and Error from last week for reasons that I’m just going to call “vehicular homicide”.