Sweden’s Agatha Christie? No More Murders (1951) by Maria Lang (trans. By Joan Tate)

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4.25/5

25 comments

  1. Yeah! A convert…my very first! Glad you enjoyed Lang. And you’ll be glad to know that Lord Peter is Miss Olivia Petren’s favorite detective (or maybe he’s Miss Livia Petren’s favorite detective?)

    I found the “forthright” way in which she wrote different, but refreshing for the time. Or maybe just a cultural difference?

    I still haven’t been able to find a physical copy of any of the three (that I can afford), but still looking!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh yes I very much imagine it is just a cultural difference, but it struck me forcibly due to the time period. I think LPW is Livia’s preferred detective, as she is not so keen on lots of blood shed.
      And yes a FB GAD member also from America has been sharing some of the crazy prices for hard copies – over $800!!! She managed to bag a $12 book, but after that the cheapest was around $50. Libraries might be the way forward!

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      • I think even in Sweden there were comments on Lang’s forthrightness when it comes to sex – she’s been accused of coming too close to the literary genre that in Swedish is called “tantsnusk” – it’s impossible to make an English translation that doesn’t sound incredibly condescending about what older women are supposedly reading. Let’s just say that writers like Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins are included in this genre. 🙂

        Tant = lady of a certain age
        Snusk = filth

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think this trait became a bit more common as time went on – these early works are more aligned with the GA standards.

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  2. My exposure to Lang came with the Swedish TV series Crimes of Passion, starring Ola Rapace as Puck, and my DVD set is comprised of six episodes. In addition to No More Murders, there’s Death of a Loved One, King Lily of the Valley, Roses, Kisses and Death, Dangerous Dreams, and Tragedy in a Country Churchyard. It has been a few years since I’ve watched the series, but I remember enjoying it very much.

    I also remember a different dynamic than you describe. The Puck of this series is involved with two men, a fellow grad student named Einar, whom she loves, and Einar’s childhood friend Christer, who is a Police Commissioner. You make me want to watch the series over again and to read some of these. The stories were nothing like the grim, icy ScandiNoir we’re plagued with nowadays, thanks to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; there was a sort of Christie/Marsh feel to them. I might have to check out these e-books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know there was such an extensive adaptation available, so thanks for the info on that. In No More Murders, Puck is chummy with Christer and they do more sleuthing together than she does with Edwin, but there is nothing romantic in their interactions. Perhaps in books previous to this one things are a bit more uncertain.

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    • Christer Wijk is another series regular, starring in most of Lang’s novels, while Puck and Einar Bure are Lang’s secondary series protagonists. They do crossover from time to time.

      I find it hard to believe that Ola Rapace played Puck, though. Maybe Noomi Rapace?

      Liked by 1 person

      • You know what, Brad, about zero of those names are typically Swedish. Well, with the exception of Ola and Christer.

        There are exactly 66 people called Puck in Sweden.

        Noomi is just a smidge more common – about 1500 people have this name. She and Ola took the name Rapace when breaking into their acting career, it’s not a Swedish name either.

        And while Tuva is a bit more common, it’s still a fairly unusual name in Sweden, and her last name Novotny must be Slavic originally.

        All this just to say that you are forgiven!

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    • The translator Anglicized several of the names…Edwin for Einar, Christer Wijk’s last name was changed to Wick, etc.

      The series is available on Amazon, I’ll have to give it a try. Subtitles though…!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the review, which was illuminating on multiple fronts: I used to work under a guy called Laurie, and so wrongly assumed… 🤭 Come to think of it, the avatar/icon should have been a sufficient corrective. 🧐

    As for Maria Lang – all 3 of her titles translated into English are available on Kindle, so I think I should pick one up soon! Though should I read something compared to the writings of Jackie Collins or Judith Kranz? 😨 Maybe let’s stick to the comparison with Agatha Christie… 😇

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m more than a little intrigued! A traditional, Agatha Christie-like Swedish mystery novel that doesn’t read like a angsty, padded out suicide note? Get on my wishlist, Maria!

    Liked by 1 person

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