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Breaking Formula: The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn

In the late 1960s, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, the most popular science fiction writers in Russia, decided to write a mystery novel. The Dead Mountaineer's Inn was published in 1970, and its creation may have been motivated in part by the weariness they felt struggling with the Soviet authorities. Once writers of optimistic science fiction that the authorities backed, they had changed with time, and so had their relation to the authorities.

Their work over the years turned more dystopian and satiric, obliquely critical of a system that, in the wake of the post Stalin era thaw, had not delivered on its promises. The brothers liked the mystery genre, and Arkady in particular, who spoke English well, had read such writers as Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, John LeCarre, and Dashiell Hammett. None of these writers were well-known to the Russian public at the time; since the 1930s, the government had all but banished detective fiction. As Boris wrote in his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, they meant to write a light-hearted, commercial novel that would be fun to write and raise no alarm bells with the censors.

What they actually concocted was a mystery with a classical set-up. There’s a bizarre murder that takes place at an isolated inn, a detective on vacation, and a cast of oddball suspects. The idea seemed straightforward enough, but of course, being who they were — masters of the weird and the speculative — their novel came out as a genre-masher, something decidedly non-formulaic.

As the novel starts, police inspector Peter Glebsky has left his job and the city behind. He’s also left his wife and kid at home to spend two weeks by himself at a ski chalet called The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. The inn sits in a remote valley near a place called Bottleneck Pass, and Glebsky intends to enjoy the isolation. He just wants to lounge around, sip port, and ski. He’s a pretty good skier, and the first time he hits the slopes, he feels exhilarated:

With every breath I left myself further behind…left the tightly wound moralist who followed every law to the last letter, the man whose shirt buttons shone, the attentive husband and exemplary father, hospitable to his friends and friendly with his relatives…I was overjoyed to feel all this leaving me, I hoped that it would never return, that from this point forward everything would be light, elastic, crystal-clear, that it would proceed at this same furious, happy, youthful pace, and how good that I’d come here…

The inn has some odd things about it. To begin with, its name — derived from a mountaineer who died nearby when he fell from a cliff and set off an avalanche. The inn’s owner, Alex Snevar, is an eccentric designer of wind turbines he builds himself, and his dog, a Saint Bernard named Lel, seems to have preternatural intelligence. Indeed, Snevar describes his pet as “Sapient,” saying that he “Understands three European languages.” Though the mountaineer died six years ago, Snevar talks about him often, and the place seems imbued with the dead mountaineer’s presence, which Snevar points out to him.

“Yes!” the owner cried. “There’s HIS pipe. That’s HIS jacket. And that over there is HIS alpenstock. ‘Don’t forget your alpenstock,’ I said to him that very morning. He just smiled and shook his head. ‘You don’t want to be stuck up there forever!’ I shouted, a cold premonition passing over me…”

…I muttered something about a lack of respect for the dead.

“Not at all,” the owner retorted thoughtfully. “It’s much more complicated than that. It’s much more complicated, Mr. Glebsky.”

Glebsky doesn’t want riddles and complications on his vacation, but the unanswered questions are just beginning. And then, there are Glebsky’s fellow guests, who he views as irritants.

There’s a traveling salesman named Albert Moses and his gorgeous wife. Mr. Moses is never without a mug in his hand, and though he drinks from it constantly, it always looks full. There’s the famous hypnotist and magician, Du Barnstoker, staying with his adolescent relative Brun —because Glebsky can’t tell the young person’s gender, he refers to the youth as “it” — and there’s Simone, a scientist recovering from a nervous breakdown. Soon, during a snowstorm one night, two new men arrive; one is Hinkus, an enigmatic youth counselor on sick leave, and the other is Olaf Andvarafors, a guy so big and powerful looking, Glebsky calls him a Viking.

With all the major players in place, more oddness ensues—  slapstick even; a person or force is apparently moving hotel objects around and making guests’ personal items disappear. It becomes clear, this is the last place Glebsky should have come to find peace and relaxation. The pacing and overall strangeness of everything keeps the reader both intrigued and laughing. As Ursula Le Guin said of the Strugatsky brothers, “One is descended from Gogol and the other from Chekov, but nobody is sure which is which.”

The storytelling inThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is fast-paced, hilarious, and filled with character detail, and the build-up to the inevitable murder is as entertaining as the investigation afterwards. Of all the puzzling happenings, Glebsky thinks, “Damn, I can’t figure it out…Not enough experience. I’m not Hercule Poirot…”

Maybe not, but for a police inspector who describes himself more than once as a mere bureaucrat, he does like to engage in what his by the book superiors back in the city would have to consider unusual speculations. While drinking port, he and Snevar discuss a number of questions that vary in the broadness of their scope:

Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens). Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

Besides showing us that Glebsky isn’t as mundane in his thinking as he might have us believe, this passage balances tones in a way the Strugatsky brothers excel at. The Dead Mountaineer's Inn continually alternates in presenting what you might call metaphysical questions with absurdly inane ones.

A funny scene in which Glebsky waits in line with the other guests to take a shower captures this. The guests bicker, argue, and question each other, all the while trying to figure out who is in the common shower singing and mumbling. If everyone thought to be in the hotel is in view, who could be behind the closed door, washing himself? Is it the ghost of the dead mountaineer? Meanwhile, as they wait in line to use the shower, Du Barnstoker entertains them “with the multiplication and division of multidigit numbers.”

The mysteries inside the inn multiply until the worst happens. Olaf Andvarafors is found murdered in his room. The Viking’s door is locked from the inside, and though the window is open, no footprints are found on the sill or in the snow anywhere near it. The huge guy is lying on the floor face down, but his head is “turned one hundred eighty degrees in a brutal and unnatural fashion,” so that his face is turned toward the ceiling.

A locked room, an impossible crime, intimations of something at work beyond the natural — the Strugatskys give us a scenario that mysteries have mined since their beginning. Poe used it in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” Countless others have used it since.

Mystery readers derive pleasure wondering how the writer will explain the inexplicable away, knowing that following the genre’s traditions, “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course,” as priest and detective story writer Ronald Knox famously wrote in his “10 Commandments of Detective Fiction.” The thing is, with The Dead Mountaineer's Inn — considering the science fiction background of its creators, that the novel up to the murder has been so irreverent, and that the book is subtitled One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre — the reader does wonder whether the Strugatskys will stick to the conventional rules.

His vacation ruined, Glebsky decides to investigate. No help will be coming from outside for a while because an avalanche in Bottleneck Pass has sealed the inn off. As others tell Glebsky that the victim, as well as some of the guests, may not even be human, he feels that he is getting out of his depth. He does have a philosophical streak, but the case is extending beyond his mental scope. Snevar knows this and tells him he has to expand his way of thinking:

…the only thing I feel, Peter, is that you’re going about this all wrong. You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in particularly unnatural places. You’re exploring alibis, gathering clues, looking for motives. But it seems to me that, in this particular case the usual terms of your art have lost their meaning…

But what is a 20-year veteran of the bureaucratic machinery to do? As he says, “I’m just a police officer. I don’t have the clearance to carry on conversations with ghouls and aliens.” That is, if the solution to the mystery lies in the realm of ghouls and aliens?

A great thing about this novel is that it starts weird and develops into something even weirder after the murder—and yet ambiguity remains. At the conclusion, Glebsky himself cannot be sure what happened, cannot settle on a definitive interpretation of the events he lived through.

After the avalanche snow is cleared, the police he called arrive and comb over everything at the inn. There are reports and commissions; whatever may have happened, however odd and potentially dramatic for the human race, the bureaucracy rolls on.

Still, Glebsky is not that much of a functionary. In the case’s aftermath, he never is able to come to terms with how Simone, the scientist, came to regard him with contempt. Simone is convinced that Glebsky misread everything, with tragic consequences, and a part of Glebsky can’t shake the thought that maybe, just maybe, the scientist is right.

Was he, police inspector Glebsky, too small-minded to see the big picture? Should he at least have tried a different approach when examining the unfamiliar phenomena facing him? It’s possible he was, and remains, too narrow in his thinking, and in the end, after all the high jinks and laughs they give the reader, the Strugatsky Brothers leave us with a sense of Glebsky’s frustration.

A last rite for the detective genre? Sort of. There’s no affirmation of the powers of ratiocination here. The only thing to triumph is the idea of indeterminacy.

—Scott Adlerberg

Originally published in Criminal Element 

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

On All One Case and Ross Macdonald

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
When the lights came up at two
I caught a glimpse of you
And your face looked like something
Death brought with him in his suitcase
—Warren Zevon, “The French Inhaler”

I don't exactly know why I took Kevin Avery and Jeff Wong's It's All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives off the shelf the other day. Truth to tell, no reason is needed; anyone who's seen this marvelous tome knows that it's a continuing source of wisdom and delight, well worth dipping into at any point in time.

A bit of background might be helpful for the uninitiated. In 1976, journalist Paul Nelson recorded almost 50 hours of interviews with Ken Millar, better known as detective novelist Ross Macdonald, for a Rolling Stone article. The article never happened, and the tapes languished. Macdonald died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 1983. Nelson died in 2006.

Kevin Avery, a writer who venerates Nelson, published Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, in 2011, bringing the critic and his work newfound attention and respect. Avery was approached by artist and illustrator Jeff Wong, a friend of Nelson's and the owner of an extensive collection of material (books, manuscripts, letters, etc.) by and about Macdonald. Wong had a transcript of the 1976 interviews. Would Avery like to read them?

Avery said yes, and the result, ultimately, was It's All One Case. Avery skillfully edited the interviews. Wong selected hundreds of mouth-watering items from his collection and designed the coffee-table-sized volume for Fantagraphic Books. Visually stunning, intellectually provocative, Case is a triumph. Flipping through its pages, the reader finds gem after gem.

Discussing Mickey Spillane and his followers, Nelson observed: "It seemed like the hardboiled style went into excess very fast."

Macdonald answered: "Well, it's very hard to keep it clean, to keep it morally clean, because simplicity is the most difficult of all tools to use. When you're writing what purports to be the spoken word, you're constantly having to differentiate between what's valid and what's ephemeral . . . Most slang dies, for example, so you have to be very careful. You really have to write a purer style in a sense than the literary writers write; and I think Hammett does write a purer style than most of his literary contemporaries. His style in his best work is amazingly pure and accurate and simple. Well, that's not what I aim at, of course. I don't aim at simplicity."

Nelson: "Do you think you’re a prisoner of complexity in a way?”

Macdonald: “Yes, but a willing prisoner. It's sort of a happy imprisonment, though, to be imprisoned in something that you've made yourself.”

Readers familiar with Macdonald’s staggeringly complicated plots will agree: It's a pleasure to be caught in his imaginative web.

I could quote at length from Nelson and Macdonald's conversations, but — like Macdonald's novels — the cumulative effect is more powerful than any given moment, striking as it may be.

The last decade has been good to Macdonald. His books are back in print. A number of his works have been included in the prestigious Library of America series. Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of his correspondence with Eudora Welty was published in 2015. His reputation, which had declined in the years following his death, is once again on the rise. The reputation of Margaret Millar, Macdonal's wife, is also on the upswing, and her works are now available from Syndicate Books. Jeff Wong designed the covers for the Millar re-issues.

Warren Zevon was a rabid fan of Macdonald's. (For more details, see Nelson’s piece on the singer-songwriter in Everything Is Afterthought.) Zevon never achieved his goal of writing a detective novel, but he drew from the hardboiled perspective time and again in his songs. I've always liked the lined quoted at the top of these remarks, and you can hear them here:

— Joseph Goodrich

Joseph Goodrich is an Edgar Award-winning dramatist whose plays have been produced across the country. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Noir Riot. His most recent play, an adaptation of Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, recently closed a successful run in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Obsessing over Typewriters and Libraries

David Mamet once observed that writers are obsessed with office supply stores. The things these stores contain — pens, pencils, inks, paper — are the only visible proof of what we do.

I thought of Mamet's remark after seeing California Typewriter, a fascinating new documentary about the titular shop in Berkeley, California. Computers may rule the day (these words are being written on one), but they are, I think, essentially inscrutable: We don't know how they work, and God knows we can't fix them when they break down. The computer is a cross between science-fiction and witchcraft.

There's nothing occult about the typewriter, however. How it works is apparent. You push a key. The key slaps ink on paper and, letter after letter, words form into sentences. It's a supremely satisfying physical act, typing. You roll in the sheet of paper and start typing. The carriage moves. The bell rings . . .

Along with a look at the typewriter store in Berkeley, the film offers thoughts on the creative process from the late Sam Shepard; Tom Hanks, whose typewriter-mania is well-known; non-fiction author David McCullough; the terrifically annoying musician John Mayer; the intriguing Jeremy Mayer, whose sculptures built out of old typewriter parts are strikingly strange and objects of beauty; and others.

California Typewriter is well worth viewing — especially if, like me, you love the old machines. I have two of them, and I still drag them out on occasion. Here's a link to the NPR review.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Frederick Wiseman's new (and lengthy) documentary about the NYPL  is a less satisfactory cinematic experience. That I was looking forward to seeing it goes without saying; a writer is, first of all, a reader, and I’ll bet most of us have spent many happy hours in libraries, reading, thinking, writing, or just daydreaming. I have a particular fondness for the NYPL, having spent the better part of a year in its Rare Book and Manuscript Division, where I happily researched a project.

Wiseman captures lengthy fragments of activity in the Schwartzman Building on 42nd Street, but he also wanders into other, smaller branches. The manifold activities housed by the Library is staggering. We sit in on board meetings, talks by distinguished authors, witness performances at Lincoln Center, join in community discussions in Harlem — to name only a few.

For all its scope and length, the film seems slight. I don’t ask for a conventional narrative, but one should feel some sort of dramatic arc, and Ex Libris fails to deliver on that count. Here's a rather more positive take on the film, courtesy of The New Yorker.

There's something primal, something Proustian about libraries. I think about the one in my hometown in southwestern Minnesota. It was housed in something called the Nobles County War Memorial Building, which also contained, in the basement, various items of the Historical Society — samples of barbed wire, coonskin caps, flags with bullet holes and most terrifying of all, an iron lung.

I can see those shelves and smell the old books. I’m back in the mystery section. Stanley Ellin – yes, I've heard of him. Mystery Stories. Introduction by Ellery Queen. Hmmm . . .

— Joseph Goodrich

Joseph Goodrich is an Edgar Award-winning dramatist whose plays have been produced across the country. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Noir Riot. His most recent play, an adaptation of Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, recently closed a successful run in St. Paul, Minnesota.

My Favorite Crime Movie: Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

If there's a crime movie I would enjoy more than the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, based on the 1934 novel of the same name by the inimitable Agatha Christie, I haven’t found it yet. I've seen the movie — starring Albert Finney as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot — a number of times. And even though I know whodunit, I can watch the movie over and over again and still be fascinated by it.

The appeal of this particular adaptation of the book begins even before the first scene, with the opening overture and the graphics against which the opening credits are listed. The music is jazzy and upbeat and the graphics are perfect — art deco, bright, snazzy. Everything fits the time during which the famous train ride is supposed to have taken place. Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express during the second half of the 1920s and the music and graphics in the movie suggest the Roaring Twenties as well as any novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As the opening credits fade, the musical score becomes darker, more sinister, and we are plunged straight into the story of the kidnapping of the Armstrong baby. The flashback sequence in the movie is perfectly executed. There is no talking, only music and action. Newspaper accounts fill the screen and we get suggestions of how the kidnapping occurred. We catch fleeting glimpses of the kidnapper escaping with the baby, a woman tied to a chair, a car fleeing the scene. We see the aftermath of the kidnapping: the baby's body has been found, a couple too distraught to speak try to dodge all the reporters clamoring for a comment.

As a writer, what I find most interesting about the opening scenes of the movie is that they are a flawless example of the adage "Show, don't tell." Not a word is spoken until we meet Hercule Poirot five years later on a ferry about to cross the Bosporus, and yet we know everything that has happened. We've met the family, we know of their grief, and we've got an idea of how the crime was committed.

And now we get to the cast, one of the greatest strengths of the 1974 movie adaptation. The movie features, in no particular order (in addition to Finney), Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Jaqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Perkins, among others. The cast list reads like a Who's Who of the movie industry.

Finney manages to be both funny and serious. He's in his element, investigating a crime in a variation of the locked-room scenario, but he is world's greatest detective, after all, and he allows himself a certain amount of pride and preening. I laugh every time he puts on the hair net and the mustache protector to sleep, and when he dons gloves to read the newspaper or puts on his robe with the snakeskin pattern. He's a man of contrasts that Finney plays to perfection.

And every time I watch Lauren Bacall reveal her true identity (that's as close as I’ll get to a spoiler if you haven't seen the movie), I am shocked. The movie is that good.

I could go on, talking about certain cinematic nuances, like the train brakes that sound like a woman screaming or the snowstorm that strands the train on the tracks, but I won’t. I want you to see the movie for yourself. And see it before November, when the newest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express is released.

—Amy M. Reade

USA Today Bestselling author Amy M. Reade writes women's contemporary and gothic fiction. Her books have been compared to authors such as Daphne du Maurier, Phyllis Whitney, and Victoria Holt. Her standalone novels feature vivid descriptions of exotic and fascinating locations, such as the Thousand Islands region of New York State, Charleston, South Carolina, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Most recently, she has been working on The Malice series, set in the United Kingdom.

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