Published by Eye and Lightening
Publication date – 28 November 2019
Source – review copy
On a blazing hot summer’s day, holidaymakers at a guesthouse on a Norwegian island are shocked to discover that a fellow guest has been found murdered on a desolate plain. The nameless narrator, an author, was the last person to see the victim alive; shortly afterwards, he is disturbed by a noise like ‘a rattling of chains’. A local tells him this is ‘the iron chariot’, which is said to presage death.
Detective Asbjørn Krag is summoned from the capital, Kristiania, and sets about investigating the murder. When a similar death occurs on the plain, it is again preceded by the eerie sound of the iron chariot, which leaves no tracks. Mystery is added to mystery when the victim turns out to be a man believed to have died several years earlier.
Drawn unwillingly into the investigation, the narrator is puzzled by the enigmatic detective’s apparent inaction, and troubled by unfolding events. These begin to take a toll on his mental wellbeing and he sinks into a state of dread, exacerbated by mysterious happenings at the cabin where he is staying.
So profound is his unease that he feels he must leave the island. Then Krag promises to tell him the solution to the mystery…
On a lazy summer day on a Norwegian island, holiday makers are looking forward the return of the summer sun. The peace is shattered when the body of one of the guests is found. The last person to see him alive, the nameless narrator of the story, recounts hearing the rattling of chains, which locals say is the iron chariot, heard before death. Detective Asbjørn Krag arrives to investigate.
The Iron Chariot was voted the best Norwegian crime novel by Norwegian crime writers in 2017, and Riverton’s name still graces a literary prize so I was eager to read it when it came to my attention.
We see the world only through the unnamed narrator’s eyes. This gives a sense of distance from the book, a slightly skewed view of what is happening. There is the doubt and unanswered questions that go along with the information fed to the reader.
Krag appears to be an inept detective. The narrator is confused and concerned by Krag’s apparent inaction. It appears that the detective is simply having a holiday, wandering around the hotel and the island, enjoying the view. However, much like a more famous Belgian detective, who would emerge a few years later, looks are deceptive. As the story progresses our narrator sees that Krag has actually been up to far more than first appeared. Whilst set on an island this feels very much like a closed room mystery. There are a limited number of characters, the island is small and self contained and there’s a sense of isolation. This all adds to the sense of unease of the narrator, that transfers to the reader.
There are more instances of similarities with Agatha Christie, a curious thing given this was written years before she took up a pen and presumably she did not read Riverton’s work given the different language. Krag is a balding middle aged man who wore pince-nez. He is a private detective, prone to thinking rather than physical action and in this particular novel, the techniques used are mirrored in Christie’s work years later. It goes to show that great minds do truly thing alike.
I had an idea of who the murderer was and my suspicions were found to be correct but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story, in fact it helped pick out little clues that were dotted throughout.
This is a clever little novel and it is easy to see how it captured the imagination 100 years ago, and still entertains today.
About the author
Stein Riverton was born Kristoffer Elvestad Svensen in a small Norwegian town near the Swedish border in 1884. After being caught embezzling money as a young office boy, he changed his name to Sven Elvestad and moved to Kristiania (Oslo) to start a new life as a journalist. He became notable for his stunts as a reporter, including spending a day in a circus lion’s cage. He was also the first foreign reporter to interview Adolf Hitler.
Under the pen name Stein Riverton, he wrote a series of crime novels featuring the retired police detective Asbjørn Krag. Published in 1909, Jernvognen (The Iron Chariot) is regarded as his masterpiece. He died in 1934.
The Riverton Prize, awarded annually to the best Norwegian crime story, is named after him.