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the iron chariot

23 february 2021

Sven Elvestad published The Iron Chariot in 1909 under the pen name Stein Riverton; the novel is noted by critics as one of the earliest Scandinavian murder mysteries, but it is difficult to find in English. James Jensen did the first English version of the book only in 2005, and you can get it online: a charming, very-small-press paperback in square format, almost like a children's picture book: and indeed its 221 pages include lots of pictures, by artist Sonja Van Guilder. The Iron Chariot is a very short work, a novella or even a long story, and an effective piece of character study and atmosphere. Spoilers will follow, so you may just want to stop reading here if you are determined to be a Scandi-Krimi completist and want the full suspense of the Stein Riverton experience.

We are on a holiday island, early in a Norwegian summer, and our young male narrator is enjoying both the relative absence of visitors at his hotel, and the nearby presence of an affable landowner named Gjærnes and Gjærnes' fetching sister Hilde. He drops in on the Gjærnes family one night and is turned away, perhaps because another hotel guest named Blinde is already paying a call on Frøken Hilde.

The next day, Blinde is found murdered on the road. The novel never develops any suspects for the murder, so it is almost superfluous to tell you that the killer is the unreliable narrator himself, seized with sudden jealousy the night before. But he has left no clues, and the case falls into the hands of an Oslo consulting detective named Asbjørn Krag, who apparently specializes in insoluble cases.

The mystery is compounded by the title vehicle. An island legend, the Iron Chariot is supposed to roll on nights when someone is killed, and people heard it clanking around on the night of Blinde's death. Later, another corpse turns up: that of the Gjærnes siblings' father, who was rumored to have drowned untraceably years before, the last time the Chariot took to the highway. But Old Gjærnes had just been faking his first death as a kind of con game. His sudden fetching up, positively dead this time (but as it happens by freak accident), complicates the first investigation no end.

Asbjørn Krag, like some primeval Columbo, is never in doubt as to the killer's identity. He just has to provoke the narrator into a false move by wearing down his self-discipline. The result is a cat-and-mouse game, leisurely even given the book's short span, with touches of the supernatural that turn out to be completely prosaic, even to involve cutting-edge technology. It's hard to take the story very seriously but also hard not to like it, as it is written in a spare but dramatic tone that shines through in Jensen's translation. The Nordic Noir got off to a good start, 112 years ago.

Riverton, Stein. The Iron Chariot. [Jernvognen, 1909.] Translated by James P. Jensen. Illustrated by Sonja Van Guilder. St. Paul: Nelsbok, 2005.