Today I am reviewing an Asbjørn Krag novella, which was originally published under the title, Gjennem de Tre Værelser. Elvestad also wrote under the penname of Stein Riverton, which readers might be more familiar with, if they have read mysteries such as The Iron Chariot (1909). The Kataby Press are publishing this new translation of Through Three Rooms, which is being released on the 30th April, but is available to pre-order now. It will come with an introduction by Nils Nordberg.
‘It’s a cold and dark winter afternoon when a doctor knocks on Asbjørn Krag’s door. He’s worried about his patient, who has turned overnight from a cheerful, eccentric elderly gentleman into a shivering wreck. Clearly he’s terrified – but can a series of minor incidents at his country house really be the cause? And why won’t he tell anyone what he fears? Krag must go undercover as a guest at an isolated Norwegian manor to try and prevent a murder in its snowy grounds, and to find the secret behind the three mysterious rooms.’
Like many a Sherlock Holmes story, Elvestad’s mystery opens with private detective Krag in his apartment, going through some documents. Yet his activity is interrupted by the arrival of a new client. Krag likes to be prepared for his clients and we are told that:
‘Next, he turned a knob, and a powerful beam of electric light streamed at once from a green lamp, straight at the door—just as it opened and a gentleman stepped into the room.’
Krag is clearly keen to have the advantage and to scrutinize his new client as quickly as possible. We soon learn this is because he was once ‘fooled by a man in a false beard’. I felt like this was the kind of error Holmes would have admitted to committing.
In ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’ (1892), Holmes says to Dr Watson:
‘[…] the days of the great cases are past. Man. Or at least criminal man, has lost all enterprise and originality. As to my own little practice, it seems to be degenerating into an agency for recovering lost lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding-schools. I think that I have touched bottom at last.’
We find a similar tendency to boredom in Krag, who also experiences ennui with the criminal cases he has to deal with. Fortunately for him, his latest client brings a more interesting mystery to be solved.
The mystery involves John Aakerholm and he is quickly shown to be an ideal murder victim candidate:
- He lives in a rural location (Kvamberg Manor) and has few friends.
- He is a hypochondriac, so naturally those around him can be sceptical of his complaints.
- He makes very odd demands such as insisting on no one being near his bedroom at night. To that end he locks the doors to the two rooms that follow on from his bedroom (hence the title). His bedroom window ledge is covered with barbed wire. He has the only key.
- He is engaged to a much younger woman, who loves luxury, but whose widowhood left her in low financial waters.
- He has an adopted grown-up son, (who may not be all that keen on his father getting hitched).
It is when Aakerholm announces that his wedding date is being brought forward, that his health and behaviour begin to deteriorate. Yet despite being a hypochondriac, he provides his doctor with no information. This sudden change in behaviour is a trait Holmes also encounters in several of his cases such as in ‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’ (1893), ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ (1923) and ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ (1924).
With the mention of the three rooms, the narrative appears to be shaping as a locked room mystery, not least because everyone is wondering why Aakerholm refuses to have anyone near his bedroom at night (his money is all at the bank). However, whilst the mystery of the three rooms is what draws Krag into the case, the story’s focus shifts on to other intriguing events, including another impossibility involving a pavilion surrounded by snow (a setting picked up later by Carter Dickson’s The White Priory Murders (1934)). Krag notes this change in direction himself saying at one point, that the crime being planned ‘no longer has any connection to the three rooms. We have emerged from one mystery only to find ourselves embroiled in another.’
Akin to the Holmes canon, this novella also includes a friend of Krag’s who observes his investigative activities with astonishment, and like Holmes, Krag prefers to keep his cards up his sleeves. He is perhaps a little too reticent, although this is in keeping with other pre-Golden Age Detective fiction. Nevertheless, Krag harnesses the power of the telegraph like Holmes and the background to the story shares other Holmesian elements. This is the kind of mystery which is liable to trip up the reader whose mind more naturally flies to more elaborate and complicated explanations. Krag touches upon this near the end of the story:
‘You want to know the secret of the three rooms? I see that events have failed to reveal it to you. Well, that is only to be expected—you laymen have an infernal capacity to see the inexplicable and the mysterious in the most everyday phenomena. It is true enough that the so-called secret of the three rooms was the origin of this tragic drama. But the secret itself is really exceedingly mundane and ordinary. It is a trifle that becomes mysterious only because we have a habit of overlooking trifles. And this is just where the clever, cold-blooded detective must look, my dear doctor—uninfluenced by imagination and external circumstances. The minute I heard about Aakerholm’s peculiar behaviour, the way he shut himself into the innermost of three chambers and refused admittance to anyone else, it was clear to me why he did it.’
For all the Holmesian links to be found in this story, is this a moment in which Elvenstad turns one of these tropes upside down? Like Krag, Holmes encourages Watson to notice the little details in everyday life, but in stories such as ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891), it seems like Holmes wishes to emphasise the unusualness of ordinary life:
‘My dear fellow […] life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep I at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.’
In contrast to this, the solutions of the puzzles posed in Elvenstad’s mystery veer away from the ‘outré’, yet readers should not fear that they are ‘most stale’ as the author provides an engagingly dramatic ending. Moreover, it was interesting to see an author take into account, when constructing his mystery, that detective fiction fans were used to the outré from stories such as Holmes, so therefore the more everyday explanation would be overlooked and make for a different ending.
Source: Review Copy (Kabaty Press)
[…] Queen’s Mystery Magazine. There was also an additional review this month, for Sven Elvestad’s Through Three Rooms (1907; 2023). However, I read this in January, as I had been asked for a cover quote, if I enjoyed […]