Norwegian writer Sven Elvestad first came to my attention through the reprinting/translation of another of his works, The Iron Chariot, which Past Offences, JJ and Tomcat have all reviewed last year. However, our attention today is focused on a different title, which was originally published as Montrose in 1917. Elvestad’s writing career began early, with his first detective novel coming out when he was 17 years old. 90+ books and other shorter pieces followed. The introduction to my copy offers some interesting nuggets of information on Elvestad, from him likely being ‘the first foreign reporter’ to interview Hitler, as well as the fact that he once ‘spent an entire day in a lion’s cage.’ His better known character according to this same introduction is Detective Knut Gribb, who even today is still being ‘featured in new stories and films.’ Though today’s read does not include this character, sharing one from The Iron Chariot, Detective Asbjørn Krag. Elvestad is also ‘widely credited as the inventor of the Norwegian police procedural.’ Yet despite this I wouldn’t say Elvestad is very well known today, well at least not outside of his home country. His early-ish death in 1934 may have contributed to this, as I wonder if he had stuck around another decade or two his work might have developed a wider reach. After all his work was enjoyed by the likes of Dashiell Hammett.
The story begins with two policemen running to the scene of a burglary, in the early hours of the morning. The burglars have gone, but a piece of vestment found on the iron railings, should give you a hint as to what property has been trespassed upon… as it is a house within the grounds of the local Catholic abbey, a house belonging to Abbot Montrose. Inside a fire has occurred, there is the blood on the floor, the place has been ransacked, yet there is no sign of the lawful occupant, Montrose. Keller and Krag are the two policemen who lead the case, though Krag takes on the leadership more fully. Our introduction to Krag is quite unusual as it took me a while to realise he was actually a policeman and not an amateur detective, such is his outward demeanour and behaviour:
‘We have met Number 314 and Number 12 so far, as well as the medical examiner and Detective Keller. But who was the gentleman gazing at the tips of his boots, the silent gentleman who looked as if he was between scenes and waiting for his cue in a play?’
Money and valuable items have been stolen, yet the real question is, is where has Abbot Montrose gone? Has he been kidnapped for ransom money? Murdered? Or disappeared for a reason of his own? A number of clues are found early on, giving definitive leads: a photograph of a young woman, a yellow and red scarf and an early arrest is made, yet this case will be far from simple for Krag and Keller to unravel, with murder following in their wake.
I’ve been 2/2 this month for reads with strong puzzles in them. The investigation starts with alibi questioning, but then takes more unconventional twists and turns – a sighting in a hotel for instance leads to further death and hocus pocus with dead bodies and policemen for that matter. Whilst you are not always sure what direction the investigation will take next there are still specific tasks the policemen have in mind to solve, such as tracking down a suspected man. The story felt quite action packed, with strong pacing throughout and new information for the case appears very regularly in each chapter for the reader to consider. This information though is delivered to baffle in the most satisfying of ways. The mystery plot is comprised of distinct and disparate events which link back to the initial crime, but it takes until the end to see how everything connects together. What adds to the pace is the way that the investigators are often overtaken by events, so they and the reader are trying to keep up with these events and assimilate them into what they already know.
The introduction to this book notes a passage which evokes the style of Edgar Allan Poe, which I concur with, yet I would further add that this text is an interesting transition from the likes of Poe to the gothic tinged works of John Dickson Carr. Though if this was a Carr novel the impossible crime element would have been more definite and elaborate. But the secondary setting of a hotel called The Gilded Peacock, which is more of a labyrinth of Greek mythology proportions than a hotel, has Carr written all over it, as with the inhabitants of the establishment. Although a well clued mystery I think Elvestad also gives his story a palpable sense of adventure, giving it at times a Dumas’ Musketeers sort of vibe to it. The two central sleuths hold the narrative together well and their exchanges with one another produce laugh out loud moments from time to time.
There are other things I would like to say about the puzzle, as there is one aspect I found to be quite different, yet it would definitely fit within the category of spoilers. So all I can say is, is that the solution is simple yet intricately layered and I found it to be a very satisfying conclusion.
I definitely enjoyed this one, making it my favourite, to date, of the books brought out by Kazabo Publishing. Of course the good news is that it is easy to get a hold of thanks to this publisher and I look forward to seeing what works they bring to light next.
Source: Review Copy (Kazabo Publishing)