Friday, April 1, 2016

The Detective Story in Scandinavia by Grace Isabel Colbron 1910

The Detective Story in Scandinavia by Grace Isabel Colbron 1910

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Detective, or even mystery, stories are rare in Scandinavian literature. But good examples may yet be found, because whatever the writers of the wonderful Little Nations of the North essay to do, they do well. Two such stories come to mind as the best. They are both stories of a murder mystery, one being a classic of true literary value, the other a thoroughly good modern tale of action. Among the Danish writers in the early days of the past century, there was a delightfully talkative chap by the name of Steen Steensen Blicher, who filled volume after volume with stories, stories of love, of adventure, or of mystery, told in an easy-going, jovial style which is exceedingly attractive. The story which is chosen as the best example of his talent by literary anthologies is entitled The Rector of Veilbye. It is as striking and touching a little tale of a murder mystery as one could find anywhere, the quaint archaism of the language giving an added strength and an added charm to the interesting plot. The story is told in what purports to be "Extracts from the diary of Eric Srensen, district judge."

When Eric Srensen was appointed district judge of a rural township in Denmark—the story is supposed to have happened many years before the telling of it—he looks about him for a wife to share his prosperity and his honours. His choice falls upon the sweet daughter of the Rector of Veilbye, a strapping priest of warm heart but of dangerously quick temper. The judge's wooing meets with success, to the chagrin of a rich peasant of the neighbourhood, who had also cast his eyes on the young lady and had been refused by her and by her father. This peasant, Morten Bruus, had already attempted to bribe the judge, in a suit pending against him, by offering him a fine pair of horses at a ridiculously low price. Judge Srensen understood the motive, refused to buy the horses, and decided the case against Bruus, who was in the wrong. Bruus swore vengeance, and the judge is troubled by the fact that a brother of his enemy, Nils Bruus, is employed as coachman by the Rector of Veilbye. Nils is lazy and impertinent, and the judge, aided by his betrothed, endeavours to persuade the rector to discharge the man. Preparations for the wedding go on merrily, but one day the rector comes in great distress to his future son-in-law's office and confesses an occurrence in which he has not borne himself in a manner befitting his position. The laziness of his coachman Nils had annoyed him into a quarrel with the fellow, and his quick temper getting the better of him, the rector had raised his spade and hit the man over the head twice. Nils fell to the ground as if stunned, but after a few moments, to the rector's great relief, he sprang up and ran away. Beyond his own regret at his unpriestly anger, the rector did not attach much importance to this incident. But his daughter and the judge had premonitions of evil which are soon proven to be only too true. Nils has apparently disappeared completely, and disturbing rumours begin to be circulated about the neighbourhood. One day Morten Bruus appears before the judge with the accusation that the rector had killed his brother and buried him in his garden. He demands a search, and to the horror of all, a body is found buried in the rector's garden. As three weeks have passed since the alleged killing, the face is unrecognisable, but the general appearance and the clothes are recognised by all, and the corpse is proclaimed to be that of Nils Bruus. The rector denies his guilt, but when witnesses are brought who claim to have seen him carrying the body from the wood at night, he breaks down. He tells the judge that since childhood he has been subject to somnambulistic spells, and that in this case he must have gone to the wood, found the man dead from his wound, and buried him in the garden, remembering nothing of the circumstance in his waking hours.

With noble resignation, the rector prepares to meet the punishment for his unintentional crime. The young judge, who was to have become his son, is obliged to sentence him to death and to see the sentence carried out. The lovers are parted forever and the rector's daughter disappears. Here the diary stops. What follows is told in a document signed by the rector of a neighbouring parish. Twenty years later, a beggar appears at this rector's door and reveals himself as the missing Nils Bruus. The finding of the body and the accusation of murder against the rector of Veilbye were parts of a diabolical plot invented by Morten Bruus to wreak vengeance upon the rector and the judge for slights he had suffered at their hands. This little tale is not more than six thousand words in length, but there are few stories which so hold the reader, and in which the climax comes with such a thrill of horror.

Among contemporary Scandinavian writers, the Dane, Baron Palle Rosenkrantz, is already known to American readers as the author of two detective stories which have recently appeared in English. Another of his novels, What the Forest Pool Hid, published as yet only in the original Danish, is a better story than either of those done into English.

Beginning with the finding of the body of a beautiful young woman in a little forest pool; a story of tragic intrigue and tragic love is unearthed by a young Danish detective. The interest of the story is enhanced by the fact that this young detective does not stand outside the case, as the impartial instrument of justice. His happiness is vitally involved in the mystery he is helping to solve, as all of his efforts seem to point more and more to the guilt of the father of the girl he is beginning to love. The reader also has begun to like the suspected Swedish baron and his charming daughter, and shares the young detective's horror as the story develops. But the ending is a happy one for the lovers and for the baron. Both in the inventing and unravelling of the mystery, and in the sheer human interest of the story which lies back of the murder, this novel ranks high. It is full of action, and the plot is an unusually strong one in its tragic intensity. It is even in construction and the style is very modern.

The demand for cheap detective stories of poor quality does not seem to be so great in Scandinavia as in Germany. The need of the cheaper sort of magazines is supplied by translations of French, German or English works. The few stories of the sort we do find are, therefore, of a better grade. In Germany we find translations of all the better known French and English works of the class, and numberless poor imitations of them by German writers. There is a good market for that sort of thing in Germany, although the critics refuse to accept it as literature naturally.

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