Today’s read is by an author I have only read one other book by, which was The Final Days of Abbot Montrose (1917). This is a story I can highly recommend, and it made me hopeful for The Man Who Plundered the City. It is great to see that more of Elvestad’s work is being translated. You might also be familiar with his work under the penname of Stein Riverton, and it is with this pseudonym he published The Iron Chariot (1909). As in The Iron Chariot we have Elvestad’s series sleuth, Asbjørn Krag, who aids the police.
Mitzi M. Brunsdale, who wrote the Encyclopaedia of Nordic Crime Fiction (2016), has written the introduction for this new translation. As well as providing some background information on the author himself, Brunsdale also looks at Norwegian crime fiction more widely. I was interested to learn that Norway has a 180-year history for crime and mystery fiction, ‘encompassing 1300 crime novels and short stories.’ Moreover, Brunsdale mentions that ‘contemporary critic Claus Elholm Anderson also sees Norwegian crime fiction, usually built upon police or detective procedure, more focused on subtleties in the puzzle than other Scandinavian works.’ I was also intrigued by the Easter crime tradition in Norway, (the reading of crime stories at Easter that is, not the committing of them!)
‘When a series of audacious thefts take place in the city of Christiania (current-day Oslo), Detective Asbjørn Krag must deal with a master criminal who has his measure – or does he? From the dark brickyards on the city’s outskirts to the bright lights of the Grand Hotel, Krag must use all his skill to turn the tables on the gang and their mysterious leader.’
In keeping with other pre-Golden Age Detective Fiction, this rather episodic novel focuses on a series of audacious thefts in Christiania, rather than on a murder. A note of humour is introduced at the outset as the Chief of Police outlines to Krag the escalating list of thefts which have taken place in the city. The police are under pressure to solve these crimes to prevent scandal, as the thefts always occur at well-to-do abodes, yet despite their best efforts the thieves are always one step ahead and making them look foolish. This culminates in the Chief of Police having all his furniture in his town house stolen. The thefts in this book are certainly impish to say the least! Thomas De Quincey opined in 1811 that ‘murder is an art’ and I think the rogues in this story would want to extend that idea to include larceny too.
Judith Flanders in The Invention of Murder (2011) suggests that during the second half of the 19th century, characters such as Wilkie Collins’ Count Fosco became ‘the source of the new archetype of the master-criminal […] The master-criminal was now a gentleman: he was not only educated he was cleverer than anyone around him.’ Near the end of her work, she concludes that ‘detection – in fiction at any rate – made the world safe. The sleuth-hound would track down the murders and bring them to justice […] the cunning of the criminal was matched on stage or the page by the wisdom of the hunter.’ I think this is a blueprint which, in part, we still retain today, especially when we encounter fictional setups wherein a private individual aids the police. However, in reflecting upon Elvestad’s story I find he interestingly frustrates this neat formula, as whilst he proffers a master-criminal that he puts his own stamp upon, but he also endows this figure with greater intellect and skills than those possessed by the detecting characters. More than once he trips up the detectives and individuals such as Krag experience chagrin when they realise they have been fooled again. The opposing sides in this battle of wits are not evenly matched and the reader at times might be surprised by how long it takes certain characters to cotton on to the reality of a given situation. Krag has his bright moments, but he does not comfortably fit the role of the ‘Great Detective,’ even if he sometimes takes morphine. I wonder if Krag is Elvestad’s response to the Sherlock Holmes mould of detection.
The denouement to the story equally upends readers’ expectations and I can hardly say it is a triumphant one for Krag. Nevertheless, it does reveal one of crime fiction’s most original motives for committing crimes. I can’t say I have encountered it in anything else I have read. Similar to other mystery fiction pre-1920, this is a mystery in which the reader has to enjoy the ride they are taken on, as the master-criminal’s overall plan is not one you are going to figure out. The quality of the translation is evident in the readability of the prose and the way it provides energy and propulsion to the plot. This is an action focused narrative, with plenty of disguises, unusual poisons, duplicitous cab rides and messages in code. It is interesting to see how this mystery differs in style to The Final Days of Abbot Montrose and makes me wonder what the range of Elvestad’s writing was. I suspect it had quite a bit of versatility.
I also thought it worth mentioning that at the back of this new translation there are details on how to vote on for which book by Elvestad Kabaty Press will translate next.
Source: Review Copy (Kabaty Press)