Written by Ulf Durling, translated by Bertil Falk — Män som hatar kvinnor (Men who hate women) became The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Polis, polis, potatismos! (Police, police, potatoes) became Murder at the Savoy, the sixth novel in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series.
In a similar way, Gammal ost (Old Cheese) has been changed in translation to Hard Cheese, bringing a slight shift in nuance to match a more common phrase in English, but a change that has quite an impact on the plot of this locked-room mystery.
When Axel Nilsson is found dead in a shady boarding house in southern Sweden, retiree Johan Lundgren and his fellow members of the local mystery club take it upon themselves to find the killer. Although Detective Gunnar Bergman of the local police is quick to call the case suicide, the old men of the mystery club are not so sure. If Nilsson was alone in his room, why were there three glasses set out? And if Nilsson committed suicide before 1AM, as indicated by the coroner, why was his radio still audible after 2, yet not later in the morning? For the mystery club, this in an intriguing conundrum straight out of the Golden Age. For the police, the inconsistencies in the clues and the meddling of the old men are no more than annoyances.
The two groups each have their own methods of working out what happened in the Little Boarding House. The elderly gentleman of the mystery club search for an explanation for every little detail and grapple with every possible explanation for the body in the locked room: Doppelgangers, drunken guests, escapes through high windows, slow-acting poison – all of the usual suspects in locked-room mysteries.
The police carry on with their suicide theory, but have decided to use the opportunity to gather evidence about other illegal activities going on at the Little Boarding House such as the unauthorised sale of alcohol, tax evasion and blackmail. The two groups tread on each other’s toes – almost literally – in their respective searches for the truth, until the truth finds them, coming from an unexpected source.
Bertil Falk’s translation takes us back to small-town Sweden in 1969 (the original was written in 1971) and strikes the perfect balance between the formulaic fun of a Golden Age puzzle and the character-driven tension of a police procedural, with a fair dose of dark humour. The translation even does a pretty good job of solving the tricky issue of the rather odd title, working it into the plot well. Readers of by-the-numbers Golden Age crime may be frustrated by one or two small deviations from the way mysteries should unfold, but all in all this is a rare treat of a mystery novel, with a little something to offer most lovers of crime fiction.
Like the sound of a Golden Age mystery in the Scandinavian setting? Try Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson.
Locked Room International
CFL Rating: 5 Stars