Ulf Durling is a Swedish physician, psychiatrist and a teacher of psychiatry, who became the director of the Danderyd hospital north of Stockholm, but during the early 1970s he penned a detective novel, Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), which earned him the Swedish Academy of Crime Fiction's award for best debut – initiating his secondary career as a mystery writer. After sixteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories, the SAFC honored Durling with the title of Grand Master.
A 2014 short story, "Fallfrukt" ("Windfall"), was printed in the November, 2016, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and collected a year later in The Realm of the Impossible (2017). The short story was better than expected, for a Swede, but the solution arguably disqualified it as an impossible crime story. However, it inspired me to finally toss Hard Cheese on my towering pile. Something I had been reluctant to do before.
One of my early forays into the genre was the work of two Swedish crime writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, but they were so awful that I probably would have abandoned the detective story, there and then, had it not been for A.C. Baantjer and Agatha Christie – who had already shown me a very different kind of detective story. You can blame Sjöwall and Wahlöö for my unapologetic hostility to the modern, character-drenched crime novel during my years as an apprentice detective fanboy.
So how did Durling fare? Do we still have to scrub Sweden from the map for their part in the Scandinavian noir or did I find a pinprick of hope in Durling? Well, let's find out.
Hard Cheese was translated by Bertil Falk and published by John Pugmire's Locked Room International. I suppose the plot is best described, on the surface, as a blend of Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936), John Dickson Carr's The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) and Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996).
The story has three narrators with each narrative answering questions from the previous section, or raising new ones, which reminded me of the structure of The Arabian Nights Murder and two of the narrators belong to an intimate circle of friends – who meet weekly to discuss and dissect their favorite detective stories. Something that obviously reminded me of Bloodhounds, but the humorous first part of the story, with the three amateur detectives taking a wack at the case, recalled Case for Three Detectives.
Johan Lundgrun, Carl Bergman and Dr. Efraim Nylander are the three elderly men who hold weekly meetings to discuss detective stories and the first part is narrated by Lundgrun.
During the 35th meeting of the group, in 1969, Bergman eagerly told Lundgrun and Nylander that he had a visit from his son, Detective Sergeant Gunnar Bergman, who indiscreetly told him the particulars of a case he's currently investigating – a case with all the trappings of a fictional locked room mystery! One that happened in their own, small town backyard. A shabby guest, Axel Nilsson, is found dead in his room of a seedy, second-rate hotel, the Little Boarding-House, after the cleaning-lady was unable to enter the room. The door was battered down and inside they found Nilsson's lifeless body: lying fully dressed beside the bed and evidence at the scene suggests he had his the back of his head on the footboard. Someone had emptied the content of a bottle of wine over the body. Nevertheless, it still appears to be a case of an unfortunate (drinking) accident, because the door was locked from the inside with the key sticking in the door lock and the windows were closed. So, if this was murder, the primary problem is how the murderer entered and left a locked hotel room.
I think this first narration is easily the best part of Hard Cheese. Lundgrun, Bergman and Nylander do a lot of woolgathering, constructing and demolishing numerous false solutions, which were all modeled around the fragmentary information given to Carl. So, naturally, they come up short, but I love a good piece of amateurish armchair detective work and this section of the story had it in spades.
The second part of the story, narrated by Detective Sergeant Gunnar Bergman, is more grounded in facts and has him tangling with the shady proprietor of the Little Boarding-House, Mr. Blom – who has found a lucrative way to make certain guests pay more for their room. Another character Bergman has to deal with is a local drunk and petty criminal, Algot Cronlund, who turned out to hold the key to the problem of the locked door. I thought this was an interesting contrast to the previous part with the three armchair detectives attempting to crack the case.
Sadly, this second part also had shades of the troubled, Scandinavian policeman. Bergman is not an alcoholic with a broken marriage, but his children can be a handful and he's very aware of his own (intellectual) short comings. He appears to be not entirely happy about his life, the town he lives in or his ramshackle car. This is why I, like Dr. Gideon Fell, prefer the chuckle of the Great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St. Paul over the hum of everyday life.
The third and last part is narrated by one of three detective readers, Dr. Nylander, who rapidly solves the case based on the character and backstory of the victim, the bottle of wine and a wedge of cheese that had been found in the waste basket of the hotel room. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the solution.
Firstly, the locked door of the hotel room began as the key problem of the plot, but the second half pretty much dismissed this aspect as irrelevant with an incredibly simple explanation. Something I could easily forgive, because Case for Three Detective pulled a similar gag. Once the titular detectives had paraded their intricate, but incorrect, solutions around, Sgt. Beef solved the case with a plain, simple explanation – reached by routine detection and commonsense. And it worked. During was unable to replicate the same effect here as the story lacked in the fair play department and the identity of the murderer has its own issues, which is linked to the lack of fair play. But the most galling was the postscript.
If you forget about the locked room angle, the murder method is absolutely ingenious. A trick you hope to find when opening the pages of a detective novel, but the pointless postscript trampled all over it.
Hard Cheese started out as a parody of the detective story, but Durling ensured that as little of the actual detective story reached the finish line and tripped the best part on the last page of the book! So this made Hard Cheese more of a deconstruction than a parody of the detective story and that approach just doesn't work for me. I'm too much of a purist for that.
On a whole, I did not dislike Hard Cheese, on the contrary, it was an enjoyable read and really liked the first part of the story, but you should not expect it to make my best-of list for 2018.
On the upside, I'm now completely up-to-date with LRI. I've read everything they've published. Even Derek Smith's Model for Murder (1952)! So I hope, by the time this post goes live, Pugmire has announced a new title. I need my regular locked room fix!