‘I am, in fact, something of a poet. A poet of fear.’
Lucy Moffat, the translator of The Iron Chariot for new publisher The Abandoned Bookshop got in touch a while back to see if I’d be interested in taking a look at the first appearance in English of this Scandinavian classic. The pitch was certainly interesting, so I agreed at once. Sven Elvestad (1884-1934) was a Norwegian journalist and author. He is best known for his detective stories, which he wrote as Stein Riverton. No less a Norwegian than Jo Nesbø calls Riverton a great writer and the founder of the modern Norwegian crime novel.
The setting is a holiday resort near the sea, during a very un-Scandinavian heatwave. The somnolence of a blazing summer’s day is disturbed by the discovery of a body. The deceased turns out to be a forestry worker who had come to the area to propose marriage to the sister of a successful local farmer. Coincidentally our narrator had met him leaving their homestead the night before, and is one of the first at the scene of the crime.
More than one person – including the narrator – heard an iron chariot (a local superstition heralding a death) out on the moors the previous night.
‘I did indeed hear some carriage rolling across the plain last night.’ I said. ‘But I cannot aver that it was a phantom chariot, of course.’
‘It can’t have been any other carriage,’ replied the fisherman decisively. ‘Look at the roads. It rained last night, didn’t it, and any carriage as heavy as the one we heard must have left tracks behind it; but you try looking – you’ll soon see there aren’t any wheel tracks on the roads.’
The authorities consent to bring in an external detective, Asbjørn Krag, to investigate. Detective Krag is straight-forwardly weird. One of the first things he tells the narrator, who wakes to find him sitting in his bedroom, is that he has an almost-magical gaze.
‘You sleep extremely lightly.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘One brief glance was all it took to make you open your eyes.’
‘Can you wake the sleeping with your gaze?’
‘Good heavens yes. It’s very easy. Had I know you slept so lightly I would not have looked at you so intensely.’
‘I always find it interesting to watch sleeping people.’
In the following days he appears to be completely inactive apart from his hobby (photography) and his seeming desire to completely spook the narrator – suddenly popping up outside his window at night, making creepy noises around his cottage, and so on.
Asbjørn Krag laughed – silent, dry laughter. I could barely see the man so the laughter seemed to emanate from the dusk itself.
‘Forgive me,’ he replied. ‘But I was conducting an experiment. I could tell that you were afraid and I thought it might be amusing to hear you one more time. That’s it, I thought. That’s the way a man cries out in fear.’
The atmosphere gets creepier and creepier until the iron chariot is found and the mystery is resolved.
This is a short and enjoyable early (so not entirely straight with the reader) mystery novel with some nice translation by Lucy Moffat:
I took the road home to my little cabin. A storm was brewing and although the evening had so far been mild and summer bright, a rainstorm was now blustering somewhere out on the horizon, making the air damp and gusty; it arrived in an instant, like breath upon a shining metal plate. The sea turned up its lead-grey belly in the harbour.
The Iron Chariot
First published in Norway (as Jernvognen) by Aschehoug forlag, 1909
This edition, The Abandoned Bookshop, 2017
Source: Publisher review copy (thanks Lucy and Scott)