Given that John Dickson Carr — who would have been 110 at the end of the month, folks — published seventy-eight books over a 41 year career that encompassed such joys as Till Death Do Us Part and such nadirs as Papa La-Bas, there’s probably no-one who couldn’t be compared to him at some point in his career. So when Swedish writer Jan Ekström’s 1975 novel Ättestupan is translated into English and the synopsis opens with the tantalising promise ‘Often called the Swedish John Dickson Carr…’ well, you’re going to get a lot of peoples’ attentions even though it doesn’t at first glance really tell you anything.
The book in question — under the English title Deadly Reunion, and also published as The Ancestral Precipice because…reasons — concerns the avaricious family of an absurdly wealthy old harpy gathering at her house for her 90th birthday celebrations. Two deaths ensue, one of them with impossible overtones, and all manner of extra complications occur to confound Inspector Bertil Durell, playing the detective novel game of the quid pro quo of obfuscation and delightful revelation…I should by almost any measure absolutely love it. I don’t, not by a long chalk. And, as it’s 1975 over at Past Offences this month, I’m going to tell you why. In glorious, tedious detail.
Part of the problem is this:
Yup, that’s four generations of family tree, given to you before even a word of the plot reaches your eyes, and straight away it felt like I was about to sit some kind of exam where I’d need to recall the exact relationship between Malin and Charlene, and it virtually guaranteed there’d be a several moments of having to stop and think “okay, so if he’s married to her and she’s their cousin but this one is having an affair with that one…aren’t they too closely related for that? Oh, no, wait, he’s her second husband, so the girl is the first cousin of his second cousin, so when they marry…yeah, no, that’s still not going to work…”. Thank blimey the cat’s on there, is all I can say.
I hate hate hate this kind of overly-complex interconnectivity in detective fiction. If your readers have to stop to figure out who everyone is relative to everyone else — and, if you’re providing this sort of diagram, rest assured they will have to — then you as an author are deliberately taking your readers out of the narrative. You’ve failed, in short. Take whatever phase of Carr’s career you like, you never have this problem with his books; you know who everyone is (or at least who they’re supposed to appear to be…) and you can draw the lines between them easily and clearly. I don’t recall Carr dumping a family tree on you at any stage, but authors have dealt with casts easily this large and kept everyone distinct so we know it can be done. So, well, a point against Ekström, but let’s see how he handles it.
So, chapter 1, from the perspective of Ulla — 53, married to Fredrik, oldest living child of Aunt Charotte…hang on, check the family tree…oh, wait, she’s not her child, okay, that makes sense now. Okay, Ulla, 53, married to Fredrik, three children — the oldest also being called Charlotte who’s married to John, they have a daughter called Charlene…y’know what, let’s just read the book. Now Ulla — quite apart from being the noise made by the Martians in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds — is the most irritating character in mystery fiction. Don’t believe me? She spends the first three pages dividing up sausages and meatballs — they’re having dinner — on her plate to represent the various wings of the family to work out who might get the most money when the old lady dies.
The Svenssons were ahead on total points, but the points might have to be averaged out per person. There was one more Svensson than Bernheim — no, two more — she had completely forgotten John. That would bring the Svensson average down below the Bernheim. She now gave up in confusion when she realised that her bits of sausage and meatball could not contend with the new factor.
Okay, I get she might not be intended as likable, but this is chapter 1, for god’s sake, when you’re supposed to settle people in. When Aunt Charlotte tells her to stop playing with her food and eat some cucumber because it contains minerals and she starts wondering if ‘minerals’ is a hint at ‘money’ and so she’ll receive more money if she keeps the old lady happy (the cucumber stood for Aunt Charlotte, see, precisely to set up this agony)…hairy Aaron, I was ready to give up already. Oh, and around this we get 17 character names and relationships dumped on us in a half page so that we know who everyone is. Then there’s some kind of set to because two characters who might not be in a relationship (check the family tree…oh, dear god, why is there a Sigrid on there?) do…something (did they kiss? That seems…wait, who was it again and is there…so this line means they’re….cousins?) and everyone sits there scoring points and being generally horrible to each other while Ulla (The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million-to-one…) frets and makes me want to set fire to the book.
Such a jejune opening bodes poorly, and is indicative of much of what follows. We get chapters from different characters’ perspectives (sort of), all in the third person apart from Veronica (or Vera?) who — I don’t know why — is written in the first person, and they’re just the most unpleasant bunch of arseholes I’ve yet encountered in print. And, again, this makes the Carr comparison look even lazier, because Carr would lay things out clearly — usually it got more confusing later on, but he always starts well, and there’s someone for you to at least sympathise with or to feel some affinity for before Fell or Merrivale or whoever his detective is turn up and starts laying ghosts or slaying demons. If Ekström doesn’t want you to feel sympathy for his characters — and I hope he doesn’t — then fine, but it makes a very tough reading experience when there’s no-one to care about. The characters here keep saying things like:
“If you don’t redeem the mortgages, Martin, then we’ll be owners of the forestland, too. But I’ll demand that you redeem them, and then they’ll have to be valued and auctioned if necessary — you never know, but in the end I might take my share of the forest. What do you think, Ulla?”
Ulla!! Sorry, where was I? Oh, yes — they keep bludgeoning each other with just this most unpleasant posturing and pecuniary pettiness, and it’s actually quite horrible to have to read. And this would be…acceptable, let’s say…if there was some consistency in them as characters, but when one of them shoots their own son and then apparently gases himself in his bedroom, his wife can’t accept the idea of him committing suicide because “He was much too positive — towards everything”. And, it should be pointed out, the perceived positivity extends so far in her estimations of him that she can quite easily believe he’d shoot his own son — infanticide being among the most upbeat of crimes, I think we can all agree — but not suicide, oh no.
Everything is miserable, everyone is miserable…about the only thing it really has in common with Carr at all is the sudden love story that just appears, like, completely out of nowhere. Come the end, Durell even admits that he has no evidence for half of his explanation of the crimes, and we’re told that the guilty party owned up to them and everything was fine…but the key piece of supposition is…honestly…just…so…feeble. And I’m not even sure the eventual scheme of the two murders makes sense once you look at it — what precisely was the point of that manner of the second death? A suicide that doesn’t look like a suicide is pointless, surely. I have no doubt I missed something, as I’d lost almost all patience with this by then, but I run the risk of veering into spoilers, so shall cease and desist.
That locked room murder, though, does have the fingerprints of Carr all over it; it’s a beautifully canny little method, the disguising of which doesn’t ring true at all, but I’ve forgiven far worse in the past, and establishes the main idea clearly and in brilliant disguise. Only right there — right at the death, as it were — does Ekström show any tendency towards the flattering sobriquet bestowed upon him. I think I’ve had enough of the pretenders, and might just have to go for the man himself next time out…
It should be pointed out that John Norris and TomCat, both of who are far more trustworthy than I, really enjoyed this, and both point out that Ekström may be better served by looking elsewhere for comparisons, so it’s worth considering the majority opinion before dismissing it too lightly…
John @ Pretty Sinister: The story is filled with the kind of brooding aura and dark family secrets that fill the pages of the cases of Lew Archer. When I saw the Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I also noted the pervading MacDonald-like atmosphere that imbued that film. I wonder if Stieg Larsson was familiar with the mystery novels of Ekström who appears to have been influenced not only by Carr but by Ross Macdonald. Fans of Larrson, Carr or Macdonald will find plenty to admire in The Ancestral Precipice, a real puzzler with plenty of twists and a good example of the least likely suspect revealed as the killer in the final pages.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: However, the plot’s exposition is as clever and twisty as those of Ekström’s predecessors, and I would place the book a lot closer to Christianna Brand than Carr – who provided a wonderful blurb for this novel, “a beautifully twisted, many-colored skein which it was a pleasure to try to unravel.” Do I agree with her. Yes! Let’s find out.