The Original Scandinavian Crime Novel Finally Published in English After 100-Year Wait
In 2007, a jury of authors, critics, journalists and academics compiled a list of the Top 25 Norwegian crime novels of all time for the newspaper Dagbladet. In first place was Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum, the fifth in her Inspector Sejer series. In second place was a book first published in 1909 and which is almost unheard of in the English-speaking world.
Jernvognen, or The Iron Chariot in English, was written by Sven Elvestad under the pseudonym of Stein Riverton. It is widely believed to be his masterpiece from among his dozens of books and, while perhaps not technically the first ever Scandinavian crime novel, it is probably fair to say it was the first real classic of the genre and is still widely read today in Norway.
In fact, just a few years ago, Jo Nesbø was asked to compile a list of his five favourite Norwegian crime novels for the excellent Five Books website and here's what he had to say about The Iron Chariot.
'This is a classic Norwegian crime story. It was written over 100 years ago. Riverton is regarded as the founder of the modern Norwegian crime novel and he is a great writer. Somebody might think he is a bit slow and old-fashioned but I really like his style of writing. As a character himself he was very colourful and really lived the life that you would expect an author to live – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, that kind of thing.'
He goes on to say:
'At the time he was controversial and seen as being too explicit even if it feels to us modern readers like he was only hinting at things. When I wrote my first novel I had no idea about Norwegian crime writing; it was only after that I chose to go back and read him. I saw him as a kind of source for the early crime writers.'
Remarkably, apart from what seems to be an obscure academic edition, The Iron Chariot has never been made available in English. Until now, that is.
Translator Lucy Moffatt contacted us last year to tell us about the book. She was responding to our call for translators to pitch out-of-copyright classics to us. We are a small set-up with limited funds so the option of buying translation rights to current books isn't really open to us. Instead, we offer 40% royalties to translators if we like the sound of the out-of-copyright book they pitch. Lucy's proposal was too good to turn down, as you can probably tell.
But what about the book itself? Well, here is our blurb.
On a blazing hot summer’s day, holidaymakers at a guesthouse on a Norwegian island are shocked to discover a fellow guest has been found murdered out on a desolate plain. The nameless narrator, an author, was the last person to see the victim alive; shortly afterwards, he was disturbed by a noise like ‘a rattling of chains’. A local tells him this is ‘the iron chariot’, which is said to presage death.
Detective Asbjorn Krag is summoned from the capital of Kristiania, and sets about investigating the murder. When a similar death occurs on the plain, it is again preceded by the eerie sound of the iron chariot, which leaves no tracks. Mystery is added to mystery when the victim turns out to be a man believed to have died several years earlier.
Drawn unwillingly into the investigation, the narrator is puzzled by the enigmatic detective’s apparent inaction, and troubled by unfolding events. These begin to take a toll on his mental wellbeing and he sinks into a state of dread, exacerbated by mysterious happenings at the cabin where he is staying.
So profound is his unease that he feels he must leave the island. Then Krag promises to tell him the solution to the mystery…
We loved The Iron Chariot when we first read Lucy's translation. It is very much of its time, and is more Agatha Christie than Karin Fossum, but you can certainly see the first hints of the tone and style that readers have come to expect from modern Nordic Noir. And Krag is a wonderful creation, a Norwegian Columbo, of sorts.
We are pretty sure readers are going to love it too. We publish it as an ebook on 20th February and, if it takes off, we hope to be able to persuade Lucy to translate more of the Asbjørn Krag mysteries for Abandoned Bookshop.