Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Crime Fiction
Maria Lang, a pseudonym for Dagmar Lange (1914-1991), grew up in Nora in the Bergslagen district, in a respectable but impecunious family. She supported her studies through private tuition and supply teaching, and received her doctorate in 1946. Until her retirement she taught at a girls’ school where she was Director of Studies, after which, in 1979, she moved back to her roots, Nora, which as Skoga was the setting for many of her novels. Her first murder mystery was published in 1949 and was an immediate success. A prolific author (43 novels between 1949 and 1990), she became extremely popular in the 1950s and 60s, her readers eagerly awaiting the annual ‘new Lang’. Six of her books were filmed in the 1950s, including Mördaren ljuger inte ensam and Inte flera mord.
The influence of English crime fiction on Maria Lang’s novels is obvious: the closed circle of suspects, suspense, and the solution reached through use of the little grey cells with pipe-smoking as inducement to concentration. English dominance was yielding to the hard-boiled American style however, and by the 1970s, the recently instituted Academy of Swedish Detective Fiction (of which Maria Lang was a founder member), with Per Wahlöö in the vanguard, began to favour realistic prose, reflecting ordinary people and social conditions. Wahlöö, opposed to ‘cosy’ detective fiction, and Maria Lang quarrelled, and she left the Academy in protest. She continued to publish, but gradually her popularity waned. Now, sensitive to a growing interest in the 1950s, Norstedts have reissued Maria Lang’s first three novels, with more to follow. Several of them are being filmed.
The first novel, Mördaren ljuger inte ensam, is remarkably accomplished and sets the pattern for many of her later works. Puck Ekstedt and Einar Bure visit Rutger and his wife on their unspoilt island near Skoga in the Bergslagen district. Uninvited guests arrive: Lil, the sophisticated daughter of the owner of Luxury Films Ltd, with George in tow, a handsome but intelligence-challenged Adonis; a sculptress and her woman friend. They have all had complicated sexual relations with each other previously and, in the sultry heat, the summer idyll becomes menacing. The weather breaks, Puck shelters under a tree and there discovers the strangled body of the sculptress. When the rustic local police deputy arrives the body has vanished and he decides troublesome city visitors have too much imagination. Einar calls in his close friend Christer Wijk, master sleuth who, in a series of deceptively relaxed interviews delves into the past histories of the suspects. A tangled web emerges of broken engagements, sexual relations, jealousies and passions. Rutger’s enchanted island has become a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Eventually Wijk, in Poirot fashion, gathers everyone together and reveals the perpetrator. Even he is not infallible, for in an impassioned confession the culprit explains the true motive.
The main characters are depicted in detail. Puck, the narrator, is lively, intelligent, feminine but a feminist, with great powers of observation. She shows great versatility, rustling up dinner when her hostess is indisposed, comforting the distraught and even acting as a stenographer for the police. Einar, less well-defined, is good-looking, reliable, and inquisitive enough to act as Wijk’s unofficial assistant. The tall, lanky, pipe-smoking Wijk effortlessly dominates a scene, ‘languidly unfurling his long limbs; his piercing dark blue eyes are both serious and sympathetic’.
Maria Lang’s second novel is set in a Stockholm academy, but the ingredients are familiar. Puck, Einar, some staff colleagues, a journalist and a drama student are shown the chemistry laboratory and the poisons cupboard which contains both arsenic and cyanide. During the school play the heroine drinks a glass of water unaware that it is laced with cyanide. Another body, the victim of arsenic poisoning, is discovered concealed under the stage, and Christer Wijk is called in. The closed circle of suspects is investigated, and a picture of love, jealousy, betrayal and revenge emerges.
In the third novel we are back in Skoga where Einar, Puck and her father are on holiday. A corpse is discovered – the adopted son of a colonel - and Wijk has to unravel an involved picture of paternal love, thwarted passions, and jealousy, complicated further by Professor Ekstedt’s cat, a beautiful feline found in an Egyptian tomb and seeming almost to possess supernatural powers. Why had someone tried to drown it?
Maria Lang’s novels presuppose a cultured readership. The main characters are comfortably-off professionals inhabiting idyllic settings or, in Farligt att förtära, the most salubrious Stockholm districts, Östermalm and Djurgården. Their tastes are so refined as to cause occasional amusement, as when Rutger’s teenage sister Pyttan piles up her LPs and, energetically winding up her gramophone, listens to the whole of Wagner’s Ring cycle, before turning to Tchaikovsky for light relief. Asked to perform for her friends, Lou in Inte flera mord chooses a Gluck aria. (Maria Lang’s interest in opera is also reflected clearly in later works: Wijk marries a Wagnerian singer, the setting of one of her novels is the Royal Opera House in Stockholm and of another Drottningholm theatre.) Conversation frequently revolves round literature, with all the characters able to identify quotations from Swedish classics. An element of dry humour is introduced with a little exaggeration. Puck’s erudite father, a professor of Egyptology, has completed work on ‘Mitteilungen der Vorderasiatisch-ägyptischen Gesellschaft or something equally distinguished and unreadable’ and relaxes over a recent study on Weapons and Fibulae as Aids in Dating the Homeric Epics.
Will Norstedt’s initiative succeed? Played out in beautiful surroundings, these well-constructed novels have intriguing plots, and several chapters end in a coup de théâtre urging us on. The language is lucid, often gently ironic, and the three main characters are drawn with affection. Even so, a reader expecting a new Wallander or Winter would be baffled. Seen as a nostalgic encapsulation of the 1950s, however, they are highly enjoyable period pieces of a bygone age. People use the formal mode of address until permitted to use ‘du’. Pupils respect their teachers; drunk driving is not mentioned; journalists are considerate; police protocol doesn’t prevent Puck from attending their deliberations. In the pre-disco era, you and your partner can hear each other speak while dancing the valse, foxtrot or the traditional hambo or schottis. There are references to Bing Crosby films, the New Look, a suspender belt. A little judicious editing may be required: what for instance is the ‘Monty’ suit Rutger is wearing? – Field Marshal Montgomery’s desert outfit? A ‘råkostare’ (lit. raw-food eater) is a vegetarian; and who would recognise the name of the ‘dreaded examiner’ Victor Svanberg, an allegedly severe Uppsala professor? More substantially, the significance of the Almquist quotation about innocence and arsenic taken from Drottningens juvelsmycke could be lost.
The novels are not wholly divorced from reality, for sexual perversions and uncontrolled passions are universal themes, but if they do appear in English they will no doubt be displayed on the ‘cosy’ section beside Agatha Christie.