Regular readers here will know how much I love all things Norwegian. Those paying closer attention might have picked up my relatively recent plunge into the world of Golden Age (and similar) crime. Scandi Noir being what it is, it is not often that these two interests collide, although Karin Fossum has caused them to bump from time to time. Therefore, when an offer of a review copy was made on one of the Facebook groups I participate in, I jumped at it.
Kabaty Press was founded by Isobelle Clare Fabian with the aim of publishing literature translated into English in an effort to open up new worlds of writing to the anglophone community. Its most recent offering is a reprint of the 1924 translation of a Norwegian novel by Sven Elvestad (also known as Stein Riverton, although neither was his name at birth). Originally published in 1915, The Man who Plundered the City is one of a series featuring Detective Asbjørn Krag of the Christiania police. That was all I needed to encourage me to read the novel.
As all well-educated Europeans will know, Christiania is the former name of the Norwegian capital, once, and now again, called Oslo. This much I smugly knew. But the self-satisfied expression was wiped off my face when I discovered that from 1877-1925 the city was actually called Kristiania. Why then does Elvestad (or Frederick H Martens, the translator) use the older spelling? That I cannot tell you. It may not be significant; it may be a matter of house style; or it may be a whim of the translator. There are other oddities too, to my mind. Disconcertingly, street names are translated into English which tripped me up in picturing the action to start with. Gradually, though, my brain turned them back into Norwegian and I could follow some of the footsteps in my mind’s eye thanks to a pre-COVID visit to the city.
Christiania has been rocked by a series of daring thefts and Krag has been drafted in to assist the Chief of Police who is at his wits’ end. The crimes are audacious and so far he has been unable to find any clue to the identity of the criminal.
For a while I pondered the fact that, at the time of publication, Norway had been an independent country for only ten years and I imagined that the Chief of Police would feel that he was letting down his new country. It also occurred to me in an idle moment that the setting must have been even closer to 1905 as travel from France was unhindered. For although Norway remained neutral during the First World War, the countries between did not.
As these thoughts flitted through my head I relaxed into the book and felt quite at home. In fact, the atmosphere of the book seemed strangely familiar. It took a chapter or so to figure it out but the tone of the book, especially the first few chapters, reminded me strongly of the early Hannay novels of John Buchan. I must hasten to point out that the books are not at all similar in plot or characterisation, although there is one element in common. Without including spoilers, though, I can’t really divulge what that is. However, I can say that the unhurried style and detailed description reminded me of The Thirty-Nine Steps, also published in 1915.
And spoilers are the main problem in writing a descriptive review of this kind of book. Almost any plot points will give away something of the story that you would really rather not know until you get there. So the highlighted paragraph above is all you’re getting from me. But I can freely tell you how much I enjoyed this book – and not just because of its Norwegian origins. I like the slow, but never dragging, style; the episodic unfolding of the plot; the very present voice of the narrator. The denouement was fascinating and not, I think, one that would be found in a modern crime novel.
I will re-read this book, partly for sheer enjoyment but partly too so that I can understand the action with the benefit of hindsight. I’d like to read more about Detective Krag and happily the publisher is encouraging readers to choose the story they’d like to read next. You can do that at http://www.kabatypress.com