Last month I was introduced to this Swedish mystery writer through one of Laurie’s reviews on her blog Bedford Bookshelf. She had been sharing her thoughts on A Wreath for the Bride (1957) and she pointed out that in the 60s three of her works had been translated into English by Joan Tate. These three titles, which also include Death Awaits Thee (1955), are now available as inexpensive eBooks from Mulholland Books. Her review intrigued me greatly yet preferring a hard copy to an electronic version I began searching online and luckily found today’s read for a reasonable price.
Maria Lang’s full name was Dagmar Maria Lange (1914-1991) and between 1949 and 1990 she wrote over 40 books. Good old Wikipedia notes that ‘most of her books are set in the fictional Swedish town Skoga, which is based on Lange’s home town Nora.’ Laurie in her review describes Skoga as a small village in which ‘everyone knows everyone else, gossip spreads like fire, and many have something to hide. Hmmm…is Skoda Swedish for St. Mary Mead?’ Wikipedia also says that Lang ‘was one of the original 13 members of the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy when it was founded in 1971.’
Today’s read is seen from the point of view of Puck Bure and the narrative starts with her finally convincing her father, John Enstead; a professor of Egyptology, to come on holiday with her and her husband, Edwin, to Skoga – Edwin’s childhood home. From the get-go we are informed that Puck and her spouse have a knack for ending up involved in murder mysteries, much to her father’s displeasure and in fact the title for this tale comes from his first words in the book: ‘All right, I’ll come with you. But on one condition: No more murders. They’ve been more than enough already.’ Going along on the trip too is John’s cat Thotmes the III, (a white female named after a warrior pharaoh). John came across her when he opened a tomb on one of his archaeological digs.
Things initially go smoothly as the quartet make it to Edwin’s sister’s home, River House, (empty as she is on holiday), and John even has the chance to play a trick on his own daughter, with a replica Egyptian knife, that she believes to be an ancient one. In an area known as the Valley, there are five other properties, of which River House is one, and each is surrounded by high hedges. However, the next morning, Edwin and Puck are indifferently informed by her father having his breakfast that there is a corpse on the lawn. They think he is kidding, but he’s not…
The victim is Tommy Holt and he has been stabbed in the chest, with John’s distinctive knife. Tommy had left the area under a dark cloud and a shower of gossip three years ago, turfed out of his home by his adoptive parents. What had he done that was so awful? Grief over the victim turns up in surprising places, as does detachment to the event. It will take Puck and varying police officers to peel back the falsehoods and reticence before the truth can emerge.
I’m not sure if John, Puck and Edwin are series characters, though their setup would suggest that. I think most readers will quickly warm to John, who as the elderly parent obsessed with his archaeological work, comes at events from a different viewpoint. In the opening chapters he is given some of the best lines, all the more comic for their deadpan delivery. The strongest example of this is when he tells the others about the murder: ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to tell you […] I suppose something will have to be done about it.’ Puck goes on to say that he uses ‘the same regretful tone which he might have used to an inadequate candidate.’ And when it comes to why he delayed letting people know about the death he says that the corpse ‘couldn’t very well run away.’
Going into this story I quickly assumed it would be a husband and wife sleuthing team kind of mystery. Yet I was surprised, though not dismayed, that this is not the case. Both Puck’s father and husband lose narrative prominence, which I found unusual, as normally with this type of setup it is the wife who gets overlooked. Instead Puck takes the investigative spotlight, being the one who interviews the most relevant suspects and is present for all of the important revelations, unlike the other two. Puck and Edwin do not work together and happily seem to do their own thing. I found this a refreshing variation.
In keeping with the St Mary Mead vibe that Laurie mentions, in this story we have too spinster sisters, Olivia and Livia Petren, who always love to know what is going on, (though perhaps their intel is not as reliable as Miss Marple’s). These two characters are used for comic purposes and Olivia is a blood thirsty fan of detective novels with lots of corpses in. It is also through Puck meeting these two characters that we get some of our mystery fiction allusions. Lang seems to be reasonably well-versed in anglicised crime fiction, as she not only cites the play, Arsenic and Old Lace, but Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and even Inspector French get a mention.
Whilst there are many aspects which will seem familiar to the English reader, I think one difference is Lang’s more blunt and forthright manner in describing the birds and bees, (sentence irony partially intended). Now Lang is no where near as graphic as modern day mystery writers, but nor does she shy away from Edwin and Puck having to tell a police office the reason they did not hear the murder taking place during the night. She’s not crude but she still goes beyond what a Christie novel would contain.
And speaking of Christie, is Lang the Swedish version, as she is said to be? On the basis of one book I can’t give a definitive answer, (naturally), but I think she shares a similar skill in leading the reader up the garden path. Clues are often verbally based and in particular, like Christie, she gets you making a certain assumption, by having you persuaded too much by the opinions of certain characters. As I progressed through the book I was sure I could anticipate a big finale secret and indeed near the end it is revealed – but in Christie fashion it is soon turned on its head, and you wonder why you thought it had to be true in the first place.
So on the whole I would say I was suitably impressed with my first Lang experience, and like Laurie I bemoan the limited supply of titles translated in to English. Given the revival in classic crime I think it would be a good time for her work to be more widely brought out into English. But for now I am on the hunt for the other two 1960s translations. If you can speak German, some of her titles appear to have been translated into that language also and are available on Amazon.