John Pugmire’s continuing mission to bring us the best unheralded impossible crime stories from around the globe under the guise of Locked Room International now adds Sweden to Japan (Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders), France (Noel Vindry’s The House That Kills, Henry Cauvin’s The Killing Needle, plus ongoing translations of the wonderful Paul Halter) and England (Derek Smith’s criminally ignored Whistle up the Devil and Come to Paddington Fair). Hard Cheese by Ulf Durling gives us something classically locked room – man dead in hotel room, door locked on the inside – and adds to it a knowing wink at just about every mystery convention going: the dying message, the inverted mystery, the had-I-but-known, the least likely suspect…even when these ideas aren’t being explicitly used, Durling is throwing out casual references to the tropes and traps of the genre. Add name-checks to John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and others, and clearly here is a man who knows whereof he writes.
The book is split into three unequal sections, each told by a different first-person narrator. First up is Johan Lundgren, one of a trio of elderly gentlemen who meet weekly to discuss crime novels:
We are supporters of the classic problem-story tradition, with sharp-wittedness as a condition for the detective (or the reader) to be able to solve the riddle. We demand literary standards and a serious attitude from the author. The plot may be complicated but not illogical. The reader must have a fair chance to put his or her intelligence and cunning to the test. All the suspects must be introduced in a fair and honest way, and all solutions and explanations must be well justified. We demand that the detective solve his task with his grey cells, not with his clenched fists.
Of course, a real-life locked room murder in their small town is too good an opportunity to pass up on some theorising, especially as one of the men is the father of the detective in charge of the case, and so the meeting that week is spent kicking ideas around. This first part is honestly marvellous: not only is Lundgren a wonderful narrator – frequently veering off-topic to mention some personal gripe or problem, to grumble about A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, or to boast about his robust health in his later years – but the speed and complexity of the deductions made by these essentially overgrown fanboys is a delightfully dizzying display of intelligent interpretation. You’ll forgive me for appearing to overstate it, but there’s something really quite Ellery Queen about it all, spinning more and more ideas from the incrementally-revealed information (they keep unterrupting each other) until they’ve raised objection after objection to solution after solution and finally settle on what they feel is the correct method.
Just before the half-way stage, the narrative is picked up by the aforementioned detective, Gunnar Bergman, who is as much befuddled as he is disgusted with the crime, the town and himself:
Down at the station, old hags complain about being robbed of half-rotten bananas, alcoholics wander in and out, and there are still a few imbeciles who haven’t grasped the principle of driving on the right. I take the opportunity for the last time to remind everyone that Stationsgatan has been a one way street since January 1, 1963. We even put up a sign about it.
Through his noir-ish cynicism he gradually unveils the case (including a meeting with Lundgren that Lundgren deliberately excluded from his narration), showing the various police developments while rattling off hilarious lines about his colleagues and pretty much anyone else in the vicinity. Such fulsome disdain proves a welcome change of pace after the gentle comedy of the first section, but as the plot began to kick in more – we’re seeing it as it develops now, after all – I found myself wishing that there was slightly more going on. Towards the end of Bergman’s narrative the police hone in on and chase down a suspect in a manner that is drawn out and tortuous enough to remind me why I was put off Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and it all starts to feel very Swedish Noir – a slightly unusual chance of tone and pace, and thankfully not embelmatic of what is to come
The final 20% falls under the purview of Dr. Efraim Nylander, the third of the literary old gentlemen, who tidies up the ends and provides the final solution. Of the narrators he’s the least distinct, but then he does have a lot to get through. And as to the solution itself, hmmm. It’s interesting to note that it doesn’t quite fulfil the conditions set out by Lundgren above, which I was a little disappointed by as it destroys the meta-expectation set up by Durling. I’m not claiming it’s unfair per se – either in workings or in culprit – but it’s definitely not fair-play. There are several points that seem introduced purely to add a level of complication that doesn’t really exist, and I can’t help but feel that these being fairly easily explained is a kind of consolation for you never really having the best chance of solving this (something acknowledged in the text, in fairness). In my mind this ends up falling somewhere between Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead and Catherine Aird’s His Burial Too for the nature of the solution (not the workings, mind; I’m not just going to casually throw in that much of a spoiler) and the fact that there’s also little in the way of actual evidence, but it is entertainingly put together and very clever when you get over the disappointment of never having a chance at calling it yourself.
For a witty look at a genre a great many of us love you could scarcely do much better; as a locked room it won’t set your world on fire, but I do stil recommend it for the insight it provides of a slightly different take on a form most of us know from the Western Imperialist stranglehold of Carr, Rawson, etc. Given the high standard of LRI’s output I have come to expect the best, too, so if you’re able to come at this with no preconceptions I’d love to hear your thoughts.