Sunday, February 17, 2008
The fourth of Friedrich Glauser's mysteries, The Chinaman, is as quirky as the first three--and each of the books is a distinctive take on the crime novel. The Chinaman starts with an exotic Holmesian premise, a dead man found spread across a recent grave is recently returned to his Swiss homeland after a lifetime at sea. And the detective called to the scene, Sergeant Studer, as it happens, encountered the dead man (nicknamed the Chinaman by the detective, for his oriental appearance) months earlier in a rural inn--and the Chinaman had asked the detective to investigate his murder in the future. But the story is actually more Dickensian, limited to the inn, a poorhouse, and a horticultural college, all in the small town where the body was found. Some elements of the Agatha Christie cozy sort crop up (and Christie and several other crime writers, including Simenon, are mentioned in passing as Studer finds their books on various townspeople's shelves)--but perhaps a bit too many poisons, hostile townspeople, and shootings for a conventional cozy. As with Studer's first case in Thumbprint, also set in a small town, there is an inexplicable claustrophobia that sets Glauser's stories apart from conventional mysteries. Even in the third of the books, Fever, with its adventure novel quality and its settings spread across Europe and North Africa, there is the atmosphere of tense, paranoiac claustrophobia. In The Chinaman, there is an exotic murder in a greenhouse that resonates particularly with me: When I was growing up my family had greenhouses, and from time to time I helped "bomb" them with insecticides. I'd set the boxes of insecticide on the floor at one end of the greenhouse, stick a sparker into it as a fuse, and light it. I'd walk quickly toward the exit at the other end, and if I looked back, I'd see the fog of poison billowing up around the flower beds and rushing toward me. The murder in The Chinaman isn't quite like that, but it involves what Glauser calls a glasshouse, an insecticide fog, and a character who is locked in. And as was the case with our greenhouses, one of the poisons available to bomb the glasshouse is nicotine, which we used to use until safety regulations forbid it (because it would kill anything). Glauser's characters vent the scene of the murder before entering, also a familiar task from my own experience, but they don't seem to worry much about residual poison inside (something that always spooked me, remembering that onrushing fog of gas, when I went into the greenhouse the next morning). But personal connection to the plot aside, Glauser's novel is a sometimes comic, twisted take on the mystery novel, right down to the final confrontation with the murderers (in the fashion of both Simenon and the cozies, with the suspects gathered together in the room). Studer's considerable sympathy with some of the downtrodden and unfortunate characters in this story feels genuine and adds a vital, human dimension to this distinctive tale from 1939. The more of Glauser that we have in English (thanks to Bitter Lemon Press) the more we can appreciate the achievement of an author who could craft these intricate tales in spite of his own struggles with schizophrenia, addiction, and incarceration. One more word of praise for Bitter Lemon: while all the Glauser books have attractive cover designs, The Chinaman's cover captures the off-center quality of this novel in particular, with an acid yellow color and a weird perspective in the photo of a body lying across a grave.