Originally published in 1917 as Montrose.
English translation published in 2018.
It is an evening in early May when the quiet of Montrose Abbey is shattered by the sounds of shouting and broken glass. When the police arrive, they find the abbey library ransacked and bloodstained. Broken furniture and a burning carpet bear witness to a violent struggle. And the abbot himself, the scholarly Abbot Montrose, is missing. Only a torn fragment of his cassock remains, caught in the wrought-iron fence surrounding the abbey.
The police, the press, and citizens of this northern city fear the worst. What could have befallen the missing abbot? Has he been murdered? Abducted?
As world-renowned Detective Asbjørn Krag and his partner, Detective Sirius Keller, begin to unravel the tangled knot of clues left behind, they find themselves in the city’s infamous Krydder District, “where the dark doorways are as close together as rat holes in an old warehouse.” The more answers they find, the more questions seem to pop up.
One of the pages I have on this blog is a listing of all of the crime and mystery novels I have in my TBR pile. I created this mostly as an aide mémoire though it didn’t stop me accidentally buying two copies of So Pretty a Problem so it’s not infallible. I do note on that page that if readers have requests for me to read a title I have listed on that page to get in touch (I just spotted that Ken asked me some time ago to read Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss so I will try to get to that soon). As it happens I received an email last week asking if I could share my opinion of this work by Sven Elvestad and I was happy to oblige, particularly as it had been recommended by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime – that review is linked at the end of this post.
The novel concerns the disappearance of Abbot Montrose, a scholarly priest, from the abbey’s library. The room is found to be in disarray with broken furniture and blood stains suggesting violence or perhaps murder. There is no sign of a body however and the lack of a ransom seems to indicate that he was kidnapped either. With a handful of physical clues, Detective Krag is tasked with discovering what happened to the Abbot and why.
One of the things that I couldn’t get out of my head as I read this is how much this resembles a Holmes story (albeit one with a stronger focus on fair play detection). It is not just that the detective has moments where they make deductions from seemingly innocuous details of a person’s appearance or behavior but the style in which this story is told with our heroes dashing from place to place and, at one point, even experiencing some moments of light peril.
Perhaps the strongest parallels though lie in the type of case that Krag and Keller are called upon to solve. This case presents exactly the sort of slightly odd situation that would have fascinated Holmes as the victim seems so unlikely. The lack of a body even means that we cannot be sure for much of the novel what type of crime has taken place, adding an unusual complication to the proceedings.
While the story is generally handled quite seriously, the novel does contain some flashes of humor. My favorite section of the novel takes place around a rather seedy hotel, The Gilded Peacock, in which our two sleuths find it necessary to adopt disguises to enter and remain inconspicuous. The nature of those disguises is quite amusing and sets an appropriately odd tone to match the environment they are to enter.
I should probably note at this point that there is a part of this section of the novel that I think could be described as presenting an impossibility. I did consider categorizing this post as such but ended up deciding against it, in large part because of the simplicity of the setup and the resolution, but it was a nice surprise to suddenly encounter that as an incidental feature of the book. It involves the vanishing of a suspect and one of the detectives from a hotel room that was locked from the inside by the detective who we can safely assume is honest. This could easily have been worked up into something a little more substantial and fairly clued – as it is, it is just used to provide a shock of excitement mid-way in the book between questioning sessions.
The solution to the crime could also come straight out of a Doyle tale though I would stress that I think the ending is one that the reader can reach by considering the evidence. I have just one issue with the conclusion that is hard to describe well without spoiling it. All I can say is that there is one aspect of the case that confuses matters. This is fine enough as it makes the case more interesting but I did feel that the explanation of why that was the case was a little unconvincing and I do wish that there had been a better reason for it happening.
That being said, I found my overall experience with Sven Elvestad to be a largely enjoyable one. I particularly appreciated that the novel presents a rather unusual type of crime, trusting that the reader will be attracted enough with the strangeness of a situation to forgo a corpse.
The Verdict: A well-clued puzzle mystery with some adventure elements.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked this a lot, complimenting the puzzle plot.
3 thoughts on “The Final Days of Abbot Montrose by Sven Elvestad”
Glad you enjoyed this one. It is a shame more by him having been translated, as it would be interesting to see what other types of mysteries he did and whether or not the Holmes style continued.
I read this last year but was not compelled to write about it. I remember enjoying the humor and the lead detective was eccentric enough to keep me reading. Sadly, I wasn’t as impressed by it as I hoped I would be. I found an American edition of Elvestad’s The Case of Robert Robertson published by Knopf (back in the days when they discovered Hammett) and I plan on reading that book as soon as it arrives. Hopefully, that one will make the grade and I’ll write it up on my blog.
Also, I want you to know that I purchased several J.H. Wallis books after reading many of your reviews. I still have to read any of them! Last year I became a crazed housebound purchaser of books back during the height of Chicago’s pandemic lockdown. I thought I’d be reading them as fast as I bought them. But with three boxes of books now I’ve hardly put a dent in this trove of a madly compulsive buying binge.
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I can understand having that response. I’d certainly like to read some others of these so if you do get to Robert Robertson I would be interested to read your thoughts to see if it’s worth tracking down.
As for pandemic buying – I have a very similar experience. Stacks of books, far more than I could read, and often I can’t recall what prompted me to pick them up. I hope you enjoy the Wallises if you do get around to them though!