Let’s shed some light on the origins of this truly surprising book as the translator Chris Ould, better known as the author of the crime fiction Trilogy set in the Faroe Islands, introduces us to the mysterious circumstances of this project:
‘I first came across “Skone Og Frokorn” in Saariselkä in the mid 1990s when I purchased a copy of the original and only edition at a church sale. The slim, green-edged volume was in a poor state. The thin paper was mildewed and the glue on the spine had decayed, leaving the pages loose but – miraculously – still complete. From my subsequent research I believe the book – the first of the Citizen Detective novels – was probably published about thirty years before I acquired it, but I have been unable to pin down a more accurate date. For obvious reasons the underground press responsible for the book’s only print run was not identified and its author had adopted the common nom de résistance of O. Huldumann. The understandably clandestine nature of publishing at the time has made it impossible to establish the true identity of the author, although several possibilities have been suggested, the most prominent of which is Jan-Holger Sildquist, author of the “Surstrōming” trilogy. However, after lengthy comparisons I do not believe Sildquist’s prose style is sufficiently similar for him to be the author of “Skone Og Frokorn” or the subsequent Blöm novels’
Sounds intriguing? And confusing?
Welcome to the unidentified unnamed country where time is a relative concept and we can only try to imagine what has happened in the past to the effect that totalitarian state has nearly total control over its population. It could be somewhere in Scandinavia. It could be anywhere close to the Russian state. The titular character Citizen Detective Arne Blöm reflects on the events that had happened nearly forty years earlier:
‘Stories about the trains during the Resolution and the haste with which their passengers had been told to pack their possessions – enough for three days’, and ‘Some tricks don’t go out of style, like the door of a car which can only be opened from the outside’
However, rather than analysing history Arne Blöm navigates his way in this strange joyless utilitarian world in his position as Grade IV Detective, with twenty years in the Department under his belt. During the relentless hot summer as the heat takes over Capital City, he is assigned to investigate, or rather to clear away things after a butcher Alexander Per Arseth is found dead in strange circumstances. Citizen Detective Blöm has a solid reputation as the city’s finest investigator: ‘I don’t think you’re the sort who walks past the truth without recognising it. That makes you a rare person in this day and age.’ But he is also an overworked and underpaid State employee, and much more concerned that his brogues need new soles. Owning just two pairs of shoes for summer and for winter, he hopes for a quick yet practical solution to the incident, but definitely not a homicide: ‘Murders, for some reasons, didn’t count towards overtime hours’. Alas, that’s not to be. Another death of Jonas Carl Brunsted needs to be checked: ‘Both men had died from seemingly natural, if catastrophic, malfunctions of the heart. Both had been naked and in places they had no reason to be. Both had seemingly been in a state of sexual arousal which – in Brunsted’s case, at least – had remained oddly undiminished for nearly a week after death.
Then one night Blöm is awakened from his bed by an agent of the shadowy Ministry of Governance and Homeland (MGH), told to pack for three days and take a train to small town of Ltyok where another body has been found. Men in grey hats representing MGH and synonymous with the authoritarian regime, follow strict rules and regulations, so Bloom realises that dead butcher’s case must be of great significance and of course travels to a small town where Olof Emil Gazmann’s life ended in the same way as two other men’s. There he encounters his wife suffering from dustblues (and you’ll need to find out what it is) and seems to be on the track to solve the mystery of the tragic deaths, provided he believes a local story of Ulf and the Ewe, and gets to grips with the understanding of essence of the meat. Yes, even if it all started with a deceased butcher, the explanation of nationally important case may lie in the rebellious attitudes of some nearly forgotten folk in a one-street town.
Arne Blöm is an interesting character trying to find some contentment in the job. His private solitary existence is only punctuated by occasional evenings of gentle fun: playing gin rummy with Finnur Arnaldursen lab worker in the mortuary, and creator of the new ‘scientific’ term: penile engorgement relating to these unusual deaths. Blöm’s unspoken hopes of finding love, especially after meeting the dead butcher’s calm, practical and clever daughter Elspet, keep him going. The alternative seems to continue ‘living alone without even a cat for Finnur to feed in his absence.’
Citizen Detective will take you on a journey into the space filled with stringent procedures and echoes of communist Orwellian state, though it also reminded me of an early books by Per Wahlöö. But among the sardonic and cynical observations of life, there is plenty of humour of a wry kind: ‘she sounded like she was wearing lipstick’. Chris Ould’s translation rediscovers a novel that’s gloriously weird, serious and funny. Citizen Detective was published in March 2021 and is available via Amazon.