Aug 102012
While the first book the French writing team calling themselves Jacquemard-Sénécal wrote was in fact the second book they had published (Le onzième petit nègre, 1977), their first published book was apparently considered to be more conventional by the publisher though no less ingenious. It won for them the coveted Prix du Quai des Orfevres, the French mystery writer's prize, in 1977. While The Eleventh Little Indian (as it was published in the US) was considered "too daring" I think Le Crime de la Maison Grün or, as the English publishers redubbed the book, The Body Vanishes (1976) is far more daring. The trickery employed in this debut (yet really their second book) and the gasp inducing solution surpass what the two men did in their Agatha Christie tribute.

A drowned woman's body disappears from a river bank. It reappears in the locked and burglarized workshop of Wotan Grün, an antiquarian bookseller. The only thing noted to be missing is a rare 15th century incunabulum, the envy of several collectors and the bookseller's competitors. The woman is soon identified as the lover of Wotan's son Denis, the morose and cynical black sheep of the Grün household. As the intriguing investigation proceeds the entire household is enveloped in a world of treachery and thievery, murder attempts and suicide, and -- believe it or not -- the search for an alchemy formula for turning lead into gold.

The book introduces their series character Lancelot Dullac (cute name, huh?), a police detective who works alongside another policeman named Holz. The detection in this book is mostly of the Q&A type, though there are several instances of Golden Age type originality and cleverness in the few scenes that involve physical evidence. Most notable among those portions is a second impossible murder disguised as a suicide that involves some rigged machinery that John Dickson Carr might have dreamed up.

Once again on display a plethora of plot devices and motifs found in the work of their idol Agatha Christie. There are allusions to Evil Under the Sun, Peril at End House, Murder at the Vicarage and the many stage related mysteries she wrote. The two writers come from a theater background and once again dig into their trunk of stage tricks and illusions to bamboozle the reader with dazzling misdirection. There is even some dizzying business with rifles and bullets that reminded me of Erle Stanley Gardner's gun crazy plots. All in all plenty of wizardry and plot machinations to appeal to any fan of the puzzle driven detective novel.
 Posted by at 3:29 pm
May 072012
"The John Dickson Carr of Sweden" proclaims the dust jacket of the first UK edition of Ättestupan (1975) translated as The Ancestral Precipice and published nearly ten years later.  Takes a while for the English language speaking world to catch on to a great writer, doesn't it? While there is a baffling locked room murder in this cleverly constructed detective novel its central theme of family secrets and adulterous affairs has more in common with Ross Macdonald than Carr.

Charlotte Lethander, calls to her home her surviving nieces and their families to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. The entire multi-generational family arrives bringing with them plans for blackmail, scheming, adultery and murder. On the very first day of this rocky reunion we learn that the black sheep Victor, a womanizing photographer who likes shooting women nude, has a letter with incriminating information he wants to sell to his father, Martin, and demands 15,000 kronor for its delivery into his hands. Additional avaricious behavior is on display from the nieces, their husbands and children as they vie for the attention of the dying aunt Charlotte. In the midst of all this fawning adulation and scheming a murderer plots a revenge years in the making.

Before the weekend has hardly started Victor and Martin are dead.  It appears to be a murder/suicide. Martin having shot Victor apparently returned to his bedroom, locked his door, and allowed the extinguishing flames in the bedroom fireplace to suffocate him with carbon monoxide. But Martin's children - especially his sharp-witted and sharper tongued daughter Vera - know that the strong-willed man would never submit to Victor's demands and that the suicide has to be a cleverly disguised murder.  But how then did the murderer escape the room? It was locked on the inside. When the police investigate the scene the damper on the flue is open making it seem impossible for Martin to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation. And yet he did.  Further complicating matters is the fact that gun found in Martin's room though recently fired is not the gun used to kill Victor. The case takes an even stranger twist when a second gun is found in the attic with fingerprints of another family member who was thought to have an alibi the night of the deaths.

"Can't tell the players without a scorecard!"
The very necessary family tree I referred to frequently while reading

Hovering over these two crimes is the death of Mauritz Corn's wife, Stella, who accidentally fell to her death and was discovered at the foot of ättestupan, the ancestral precipice of the title. The letter Victor had in his possession revealed the truth about her fatal plunge long believed to be an accident. Aunt Charlotte delivers a jarring description of the foreboding feature of the ättestupan and also the Nordic legend that attaches itself:
Do you know what was here before the house was built, just where we're standing now, I mean? An ancestral precipice. It's been here since Viking days, though I don't suppose any Vikings lived here, you know, only cultivators. Nature is harsh. [...] You know what an ancestral precipice is, Inspector? Some of the old ones threw themselves down the precipice. Others were given help when they asked for it. I wonder if anyone would want to give me help without my asking for it. For an ancient old hag it would be eminently suitable.
Inspector Durrell, in charge of the murder investigation, must not only get to the truth of the curious events surrounding the death of Victor and Martin, but also the mysterious death of Stella now looking more and more like a murder. Will the letter from Victor's blackmail scheme ever be found?  Who does it name as Stella's killer?  Will the killer strike again?

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.

AVAILABILITY:  The book was first published in the US in 1982 under the blase title Deadly Reunion.  Copies of both the UK and the US editions are readily available through the various internet bookselling sties. To date this is the only novel of the popular Swedish writer Jan Ekström that has been translated into English.
 Posted by at 5:01 pm

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