The Man in the Cellar (1907) by Palle Rosenkrantz

Source: Review Copy (Kazabo Publishing)

Today’s read sees me heading for Denmark, with a story which was originally called Amy’s Cat. In the last year or so more attention seems to be given to reprinting Rosenkrantz’s mystery fiction into English, with more of his short stories and novels becoming available in this language. In what seems like a very timely manner, Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time reviewed another Rosenkrantz novel earlier this week, so do check that out as well. Interestingly Rosenkrantz also has a crime fiction prize named after him in Denmark. Although an aristocrat, it is also said that he had a social conscience, as well as a background in law, something he shares with one of his protagonists. A key facet which the introduction of this book aims to express is the moral ambiguity of Rosenkrantz’s characters, eschewing state justice and questioning who the real culprit or victim is in a given situation. Equally this radical viewpoint is shown to create increasing pressure points within the characters themselves, who at times find it hard to live up to the theories and ideas they espouse.

So onto the story, which begins with amateur criminologist Holger Nielson agreeing to rent a house in South Kensington, from letting agent Sydney Armstrong, for the 3 month trip he plans on having in London, along with his friend doctor and painter, Jens Koldby and their housekeeper Madame Siverston. Armstrong reveals that the house was recently bought by a Major Johnson, who after a week was suddenly called to the colonies. He had bought it from an old friend, who in turn had inherited it from a relative. Given the title of this book all these details are fairly important as it is not long into the book when Koldby and Nielson make a very unpleasant discovery in the cellar, which is found when they try to find a trapped cat. A body of course is found, but a face robbed of its identifying marks makes it uneasy to identify. Initially Nielson wants to go to the police but is strongly persuaded and goaded against this action by Koldby, ever keen to ensure Nielson practices what he preaches when it comes to social justice and criminality. Equally he doesn’t fancy being arrested by the police. So instead the pair start their own investigation, which soon reveals that not everything they have been told about the home and its occupants is true. Aside from the trapped cat, a trip back to Denmark is also in the offing, which presents a new light on the situation.

Overall Thoughts

Given the time period, you would expect this novel to be living in the shadows of Doyle’s Holmes and Watson. Yet that is definitely not the case. Nielson might seem to be representing the detective character in the book and does indeed reveal the final solution, but I think it is Koldby who is the smarter one, the one who holds the real power in the relationship, (‘again it was the doctor who tipped the scales…,’) and the one who has to resolve the unfinished business of the case at the end of the book. Consequently I think Koldby made for the more engaging character, who in a way is a needling, bad influence for Nielson, leading him to avoid involving the police in the case. Koldby is presented as an unusual character from the very beginning of the story, being a doctor who gives up his practice in order to paint, travelling whenever and wherever his fancy takes him. In some ways I wonder if Rosenkrantz wanted to give Koldby a sense of otherness, in preparation for the ending, as early on we are also told that he ‘adopted Muslim-like attitudes’ after his time spent in Egypt. I found this an unusual detail given the time period, though tantalising it is never referred to or implied anywhere else in the story. So perhaps it was not intended as anything more than a quirk.

Nielson is a much more conventionally conflicted detective hero, a minor ancestor in some ways of E. C. Bentley’s Philip Trent. So yes if you are in this novel and you’re a beautiful young woman then of course you are believed to be innocent. Or if you are a squinty eyed, bushy eye browed and sinister rude man then unfortunately you will be treated with suspicion. I particularly enjoyed one of the opening descriptions of Nielson and his history of employment, as I think it reveals a lot about who he is as a person in a wry way. He did have a ministerial job, ‘but had to retire because a certain stiffness in his back prevented him from crawling in front of his superiors. Then he had tried being a lawyer, but also found that job not suitable because his back had been too stiff for the clients.’ A convenient family inheritance of course enables him to pursue his interest in crime. As to the women in this book I think they hold an intriguing and complicated mix of stereotypical and unconventional qualities, the latter of which seem quite forward thinking.

In terms of the writing style and mystery plot construction, I found this book to be quite a mixture of looking backwards to Victorian mystery fiction, as well as forwards to the golden age of detective fiction. The first section of this book is the most puzzle-based, with various clues and information being uncovered, whilst the second section perhaps harks back to the literary past with its more thriller-ish qualities, leading to a surprising new direction to the investigation. The way the solution is revealed again probably fits more at home in the 19th century, with its series of letters and telegrams, but the final section/ending in some ways also looks ahead to the psychological crime novel and I would have liked to have had Anthony Berkeley’s thoughts on this piece. Although interestingly Berkeley did write his own body in the cellar mystery novel, the aptly named Murder in the Basement (1932), which in some ways shares Rosenkrantz’s unorthodox approach to justice, though not going as far as the earlier author.

So an intriguing piece all round and certainly not your usual Scandinavian crime story!

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Man or Woman referenced in the title

3 comments

  1. Glad to read The Man in the Cellar was a good read, but your review hasn’t entirely convinced me to give Rosenkrantz a second shot.

    Will you be reading The Forest Lake Mystery?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not got on my TBR pile at the moment but it may make its way their eventually, as Rosenkrantz is not an easy writer to pin down and it would be nice to see how he comes across in other stories.

      Like

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