The Forest Lake Mystery (1903) by Palle Rosenkrantz (Trans. David Young)

Today’s read is the first English translation of Rosenkrantz’s second novel. This is not my first encounter with his work, as few years ago I read his later book, The Man in the Cellar a.k.a. Amy’s Cat (1907). In his introduction, David Young notes that Rosenkrantz was the ‘first Danish author to use a police detective as the principal character’ and that his second book includes ‘a number of parallels with his own life.’ For example, in real life Rosenkrantz, whilst working as a lower court magistrate, investigated the killing of a baby; something his fictional sleuth is also called in to do at the start of the book.

Financial necessity encouraged Rosenkrantz’s career, as not only was he bad at managing his money, but he also lost his job as a lower court magistrate due to a charge of embezzlement. It was only the support of friends that enabled him to pay off the debt and have the charge dropped. Having read the book I can also say there are plenty of characters who are equally poor at handling their income.

Detectives should know they can’t go on holiday without a murder case coming their way. If anything you should find out where your local detectives are going on holiday and then head in the opposite direction! Detective Sergeant Eigil Holst is no different, as initially he is faced with the grittier crime of discovering a dead baby by a lake. However, subsequent complications in the case entail the lake being drained and this leads to a further find; namely the body of a woman who had been poisoned before being weighed down by rocks. Her identity is unknown. In keeping with The Man in the Cellar – there is much travel in store for our detective across Europe before the case is complete.

Overall Thoughts

Rosenkrantz starts his novel off well. He introduces us to his workaholic and determined detective, who is far from pleased when two fellow holidaymakers want to join him on the bench he considers as his spot.

It is not long before the baby turns up and the forensic investigations which follow provide a very interesting reason for having the lake drained. Holst’s investigation into the death of the mysterious woman reaps early success, perhaps too much. Whilst the narrative initially focuses on a conventional police investigation, its attention shifts to the victim’s backstory. At first this seems reasonable because we need to know it if we are to find out who she was. Her identity will then reveal her killer and in a way this does indeed occur. However, let’s put it this way, the book takes the scenic route to arrive at this particular destination.

The handling of the victim’s life history is rather “Victorian” in manner, for the want of a better word. Long-winded is another one, and whilst Holst’s interviews and reading of letters and diaries are not repetitive, the information he receives overlaps and doesn’t add to the plot. Coming at the victim’s past from the angle of different characters can be an interesting structural device, yet I don’t think it is used effectively here and the pace suffers. At this point I would say Holst becomes rather less efficient in his investigation, and Rosenkrantz’s prose becomes more filled with travelogue paragraphs.

Like other 19th century stories involving crime, the characters who are implicated, are suitably shifty and suspicious from the get-go, painfully so in fact. Yet naturally our sleuth does not realise this until much later. But perhaps more annoying than that, when the penny finally drops for the detective, he withholds the information from his superiors, because he does not want to cause a scandal for the people he likes, (even though they are in a very dubious ethical position). In some ways his reluctance to take the bull by the horns prolongs the book.

It’s one of these stories where the murderer is rather a convenient one, and the solution allows enough wiggle room for the morally dubious, to get away unscathed. This might just be me, but I felt this tarnished the detective, especially given how upright he seems at the beginning of the novel. Moreover, his tactics by the end range outside of those given in police textbooks. The treatment of women in this book may also leave the modern-day reader far from impressed, with aristocratic and military men having a fairly utilitarian attitude towards them. I know it was a part of the culture of that time, and that without the safety nets of current times, women may have had fewer options available, but it all sort of adds with the ending which doesn’t wholly satisfy.

So I have to admit to enjoying this book less than The Man in the Cellar.

Rating: 3/5

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