Is this the greatest Norsk crime novel?
Our reviewer calls The Iron Chariot good but not a candidate for all-time best
I have read many Norwegian mysteries, all written in the last 40 years. So when I found this mystery written in 1909 and recently translated into English by Lucy Moffatt, I was not sure how I would like it. What motivated me to pick up Stein Riverton’s The Iron Chariot as an e-book was the “advance press” of being voted “The Greatest Norwegian Crime Novel of All Time,” Jo Nesbø’s comment that Riverton was the founder of modern Norwegian crime novel, and that the book was only 155 pages!
I enjoyed the book, a murder mystery, as it was an easy read, and I did not know who was the culprit until the very end. However, I have read dozens of Norwegian mysteries, and I would not claim this was the greatest Norwegian crime novel.
There is one main character, who provides the narrative, and we follow the mystery through his eyes. The time is summer and the setting is an island with a hotel with many guests, open fields, woods, and a farm. On the farm, we find the owner, Carsten Gjaernes; his young beautiful sister, Hilde; hotel guest Mr. Blinde, a forestry agent; and the narrator, who is also a guest. Mr. Blinde had courted Hilde and has just asked her to marry him, and she agreed. Carsten is not happy about the engagement. The narrator had been one of many distant admirers of Hilde.
Late one evening, the forest agent is found dead on a path in the woods not very far from the farm. The death requires bringing in a qualified detective, Asbjorn Krag, from Kristiania (Oslo) to investigate the crime. Krag has somewhat unusual methods in pursuing the solution of the crime, causing frustration with the narrator, and their ongoing dialogues through the story are amusing.
Additional levels of mystery develop with another body found where Mr. Blinde’s body was found. This second body is the father of Hilde and Carsten, who everyone thought had died four years ago.
Then there are the mysterious sounds by the open fields at night, which sound somewhat like “iron chariots.” Could the deaths have been caused by something supernatural lurking in the woods?
I stayed engaged with the dialogue between the narrator and the detective, and I looked forward to each subsequent page as the story closed in on the crime solution. The solution on nearly the last page was a surprise to me, although judging by other reviews, it seems other readers were better guessers than I. The dialogue was also effective in describing the settings of the island, the hotel, and the guests consistent with early 1900s. The book was reminiscent of English mysteries of this time period.
Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He and his wife, Arlene, have two adult children and three grandsons.
This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.