Sven Elvestad, "sybarite extraordinaire," was a Norwegian journalist, essayist and an industrious mystery writer who penned over a hundred detective novels, novellas, short stories and newspaper serials – published in Norway and Sweden under the penname "Stein Riverton." Elvestad can be regarded as Norway's answer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with his series-detective, Asbjørn Krag, falling squarely into the "Rivals of Sherlock Holmes" category.
Back in 2018, I reviewed a then newly released translation of Elvestad's most well-known, justly celebrated mystery novel, Jernvogner (The Iron Chariot, 1909), but without further translations lost track of him. Fortunately, this has changed in the past few years. Not only for Elvestad!
Kabaty Press is a self-described micro-press of translated fiction and non-fiction with a small, but growing, catalog of early Scandinavian crime-and detective novels and short stories. Earlier this year, Kabaty Press published an English translation of Elvestad's Gjennem de tre værelser (Through Three Rooms, 1907). Through Three Rooms is novella, originally serialized in a Norwegian newspaper and published as a book under the title Dødens finger (The Finger of Death) in 1915. This edition is translated by Lucy Moffatt and comes with a lengthy, informative introduction from one of Norway's leading crime fiction experts, Nils Nordberg – who also gave his voice to the Norwegian audiobooks of Elvestad's work. Nordberg's introduction is very much worth a read as it paints a fascinating picture of the author and some interesting bits of genre history. Most notably, it unearthed that "an obscure British monthly magazine, Tip Top Stories of Adventure and Mystery, printed a slightly shortened translation of The Iron Chariot in its April 1924 issue." Several years before a rather a well-known detective novel was published. So there's a remote possibility The Iron Chariot stealthily influenced the British Golden Age detective story. However, it's more likely Anthony Berkeley can be credited with introducing the idea to the English-language detective story. And made really famous by someone else. So with all of that out of the way, let's get to the story at hand.
Through Three Rooms begins with Asbjørn Krag, comfortably seated in an armchair, receiving and listening to the plight of an old school friend, Dr. Karl Rasch, who has a practice in Smaalenene County. One of his patients is a rich Swedish-American, John Aakerholm, who arrived in the district five years ago and bought the famous Kvamberg Manor ("...the largest and best-known estates in the country"). While an eccentric old man, Aakerholm lived lavishly, threw house parties and acquired a large circle of friends. Even getting engaged to the Widow Hjelm. A popular figure newcomer in the community who entertained with marvelous stories of his adventurous "on the prairies and in the gold-mining districts." But a change came over old Aakerholm. And the parties came to a stop. Ever since he has been nervous wreck teetering on the edge. Rasch was called upon as a doctor at all hours, day and night, who found his patient on more than occasion completely out of his wits. That's not all.
John Aakerholm sleeps alone at night and has forbidden anyone to come even near his bedroom during the nighttime, which he ensured with elaborate precaution. To reach his bedroom, "one must pass through two rooms and three doors" and "once the clock has struck twelve and the old man has gone to bed, no one may enter any of the rooms" – which he locks with the only key. Rasch knows Aakerholm has to be frightened of someone, or something, as he has heard whisper, "is he a devil or a man?" And saw him hurl a heavy fruit bowl through an antique mirror. So what's eating away at his patient? Asbjørn Krag is delighted to help his old school friend, but, when they arrive at the manor house, a new development has taken place. Somebody tried to shoot Aakerholm and disappeared from a pavilion. This is the point where Krag remarks to Rasch that the case "no longer has any connection to the three rooms" and they have "emerged from one mystery only to find ourselves embroiled in another." Before too long, a body is found on the snowy grounds surrounding Kvamberg Manor.
So how well does this little novella from 1909 stand after more than a century? First of all, Through Three Rooms is not, really, a locked room mystery as you might expect from its premise. The three rooms and double-locked doors do pose a puzzle, but not one of the seemingly impossible variety. Secondly, the disappearance from the pavilion can be regarded as an impossible crime, "there were no tracks in the snow leading away from the pavilion," but hardly worthy of the "locked room mysteries" toe-tag. Through Three Rooms is an old-fashioned, Doylean-style suspense yarn about the mysterious, inexplicable character change of the lord of the manor that were not yet pass their expiration date in 1909. So there are barely any clues or very many suspects, but instead it's about what happened and how to solve it. Asbjørn Krag is not a detective who detects and deduces, but an all-knowing strategist who's always several steps ahead and maneuvers everyone towards the solution. Something more along the lines of a chess game than a detective story. Krag effortlessly checkmates the villains. A typical pulp hero of the period. However, the all-important answer to Aakerholm's personality change and why locked himself away behind two doors is not bad at all. Something simple and straight forward, but with a glimmer of the coming Golden Age. A shame most of Elvestad's detective stories were "breezily composed at restaurant tables and in hotel rooms," because more could have been done with the idea.
Through Three Rooms is not a Golden Age detective story hailing from a country with a different language and genre-history of its own, which would make it unfair to compare it to its Anglo counterparts. So, taking that into consideration, Through Three Rooms is a quick, fun read that would not be out-of-place in The International Rivals of Sherlock Holmes and comes especially recommended to the fans of the Great Detective. If only just to see what the influence of their favorite detective has wrought in other parts of the world.