Guest Post: Frank Heller’s The Grand Duke’s Last Chance (1915;2022)

Today on my blog you are spared my wittering, as Isobelle Fabian of Kabaty Press and Mitzi M. Brunsdale share about the latest reprint for Sweden’s first internationally famous crime writer, Frank Heller.

So without ado I will let Isobelle kick things off…

Kabaty Press cover for Frank Heller's The Grand Duke's Last Chance. It shows the silhouette of mustached man, wearing a suit and bowler hat. Behind the man is an artistic pattern involving waves and sea gulls.

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The world has been recently rediscovering (and reprinting) works from the ‘Golden Age’ of mystery fiction, but what often gets forgotten is that this was a Europe-wide and in fact world-wide movement. Almost every country had its own version of the great detective, and Kabaty Press has been unearthing some of those hidden gems and making them available. The below is an extract from the introduction to a reprint of The Grand Duke’s Finances (which was retitled The Grand Duke’s Last Chance as it’s hard to get excited about finances)! It’s part of the Scandinavian Mystery Classics series, which will be adding a brand new translation of another Scandinavian writer, Sven Elvestad, in April – stay tuned!

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As the 1920s opened, Winston Churchill summed up the effects of the First World War: “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them.” The war cost nearly 8 million lives on the battlefield and killed an estimated 6.5 million civilians. Exacerbating those bitter losses, the 1918 flu pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population, and killed about 50 million worldwide. No wonder citizens of the United States, Britain, and Europe embraced postwar escapist urges that made the Twenties roar.

This is a photo of Frank Heller leaning against a wall with the words: Casa Collina above his head. His hands are in his pockets. He is wearing a suit.
Frank Heller

The spirit of the Twenties, which the French called les années folles (“the crazy years”) celebrated rule-breaking and a headlong pursuit of excitement. “Serious” writers and artists churned out radical rejections of conventional values like duty, patriotism, and marriage. The U.S. stock market soared, and frenzied jazz and Prohibition-promoted bootlegging flourished; women cut their hair, abandoned their corsets, and began to drink in pubs. Popular reading material across the world quickly responded to war-weary readers’ desire for vicarious thrills with a new mode of fiction. Despite this, many of the new crime writers led relatively conventional, if bohemian, lives – with a startling exception in the person of Swedish writer Frank Heller.

Heller was born in 1886 in Sweden as Martin Gunnar Serner, son of a rural clergyman. To finance his education, Serner had to make short-term bank loans that fell due before he finished his studies, forcing him into more loans to repay the first ones, a situation aggravated by his thirst for what Swedish sources delicately describe as “the more cheerful circles of student life.” Deciding to leave Sweden in 1912, Serner forged some checks and cashed two at Malmö banks, but when bankers became suspicious of the third, he quickly took a ferry to Copenhagen, proceeding to Hamburg and then to London.

Serner then dramatically departed for Monaco to improve his finances at Monte Carlo’s roulette tables. He met a former fellow student from Sweden who put him onto an infallible roulette system, and buoyed up by a few minor successes, Serner lost everything. He couldn’t even go home because he was a wanted man in Sweden. Destitute, with only a few francs to his name, he cast about for a means of supporting himself. He hit on writing stories, fictionalizing life around the fabled Monte Carlo casino, and before he died in Malmö in 1947, he had become the most successful Swedish author of his time, famous both on the Continent and in the United States for his entertaining mystery novels, though he also produced poetry and travel literature.

Serner’s first short story appeared in Figaro in February 1913, where he had just previously published his translation of a poem by the notorious British poet Swinburne. In 1914, under a contract with the Swedish firm Bonniers, he published a short story collection, The London Adventures of Mr Collin, now using the pseudonym “Frank Heller.” Monte Carlo had been a leading European resort for decades, luring tourists ranging from royalty and movie stars to bumptious well-heeled Americans eager to gape at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Into this heady milieu, Heller inserted Philip Collin, a lawyer escaping from Swedish authorities and a charming mutation of the “gentleman thief” Raffles, a literary figure introduced by E.R. Hornung in 1898. Raffles paid for his dwelling in a swanky Piccadilly hotel through burglary, which he justified by insisting “we can’t all be moralists.” He eschewed violence, however, insisting that “violence is a confession of terrible incompetence.” In creating Philip Collin, Heller also drew on Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, a French detective-thief who appeared in sixty pieces of fiction from 1907 to 1941, so popular he won his creator France’s Lègion d’Honneur and today appears in a new Netflix series.

Vintage postcard of the beach front of Monte Carlo, circa 1906. It shows a promenade with people strolling or sitting on benches.
A postcard of Monte Carlo c.1906

Heller’s first Philip Collin story collection immediately struck the reading public’s fancy, appearing in four editions in its first two years and providing Heller enough income to start the travels he loved all his life. He first went to Paris, where he took several aerial tours with the pioneering French aviator Blériot. Heller spent the First World War in Denmark, living off translations of his work produced by Marie Franzos, a famous translator living in Vienna. Heller’s debut in German, Herrn Filip Collin Abenteur, was an instant hit, quickly making Heller’s stories the rage in Europe. It also allowed Heller to get his Swedish creditors off his back. After the war he went to Rome on a restored Swedish passport and met Annie Kragh, whom he married in 1920, and they built their first villa, “Casa Collina” in Bornholm, then bought Villa St. Yves on the French Riviera.

Philip Collin, who like Heller had abruptly left Sweden to avoid certain claims upon him, solved crimes mostly involving shady international financial transactions. Starting in 1923, translations of Heller’s novels began to appear in English in Britain and the United States, both then experiencing financial upsurges, with considerable success. The Marriage of Yussuf Khan, appearing in English translation in 1923 and reissued in 2022 as Beware of Railway-Journeys, also showcases Heller’s penchant for travel and unfamiliar cultures, his hero’s clever use of disguises, involved puzzle-plotting, and a soupçon of delicious romance. Also published in 1923 in English was one of Heller’s first and most popular novels, The Grand Duke’s Finances, written around 1915 and reissued in 2022 as The Grand Duke’s Last Chance. It remains Heller’s triumphant mélange of an exotic setting, high-rolling financial hanky-panky, and a mysterious femme fatale with an intriguing alternative-history past. Central to all this, Philip Collin carries off a huge monetary swindle with exquisite and enviable panache.

Kabaty Press cover for Frank Heller's Beware of Railway-Journeys. It shows the silhouette of a man in a suit and wearing a bowler hat. There is a pattern behind him involving vintage train carriages and people.

Heller set this novel on the small Spanish Balearic Island of Menorca (also called Minorca), little known to outsiders in Heller’s day. Since the Middle Ages, Menorca endured several waves of foreigners, from its fifth century conquest by Vandals and the Muslim annexation in 903 to successive invasions by Catholic Spain and the powerful navies of Britain and the United States before its incorporation into today’s Spain. The island’s apparently bucolic Mediterranean setting posed an unusual backdrop to Heller’s complicated plot involving its financially strapped Grand Duke and money-mad foreigners, The intriguingly unfamiliar history and culture encouraged readers to watch a strange mystery with revolutionary overtones unfold, satisfying their curiosity about how bewildering financial finagling can be skillfully accomplished—a mystery in a mysterious setting.

Against this appealing backdrop, Heller’s alter ego Philip Collin, with his impeccable manners, his undeniable charm, his ability to avoid physical violence when he can, but use it when he must, and his ease with individuals of many social classes, offers an appealing model of wish-fulfillment in the early 1920s.

Notwithstanding his fun with stereotypes of all kinds, Heller’s The Grand Duke’s Finances enjoyed considerable popular acclaim for its entertainment value, its exotic setting and its gossipy alternative-history romantic motif, swathed in delicious linguistic ironies and sparkling self-deprecating satire. The novel was made into a successful 1924 silent film in Germany, Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs, filmed on the lovely Adriatic coast and directed by then-famous F.W. Murnau, his only comedy.

Today genteel “entertainment literature” like Heller’s can take its readers for a pleasant little while far, far away from horrid realities, for, as the Swedish periodical Kvällsposten put it in establishing its Frank Heller Prize in 1981, his literary spirit celebrates tasteful “tension, humor, and a [charming]

sense of language.”

–Mitzi M. Brunsdale

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A final intrusion from the blog host: The Grand Duke’s Last Chance (trans. Robert Emmons Lee) was released on the 3rd December 2022 and is available in paperback and on Kindle. At the time of posting this, the Kindle edition only costs £2.99.

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