(Reviewed by Tony Ross FEB 1, 2008)
This is the fourth of Swiss writer Glauser's five "Sergeant Studer" novels to appear in English, some seventy or so years after their initial publication. I haven't read the others, but this one struck me as a little old-fashioned, somewhat confusing, and a bit too deliberate. Set in the countryside outside Bern, the story is set in motion when Studer stops in a country inn to fill up his motorcycle. Formerly a detective in the Geneva police, he was apparently drummed out due to his inability to turn a blind eye, and is now a lowly Sergeant in the canton police.
At the inn he meets the "Chinaman," who informs Studer that he expects to be killed in the next few months, and makes Studer promise to track down his killer. Moreover, he insists on introducing Studer to a group of men, one of whom he is certain will be the killer. Four months later, the man's body turns up in a nearby graveyard and Studer is called in to investigate. The story then concentrates in three places: the inn, a nearby poorhouse, and a nearby horticultural college. It also takes place across the victim's very complicated family tree. Readers are strongly advised to map out these relationships as they are introduced, as they become crucial to the solution.
Despite the introduction of a rather limp locked-room second murder, and a bunch of arsenic, the story never picks up any momentum. Too much of it is markedly old-fashioned (or "classic" if you prefer): the motive is inheritance, the investigation slow (and somewhat strange to modern sensibilities), and the denouement involves gathering everyone into a drawing room for the detective to explain everything. Finally, Studer's speculative and entirely unprovable solution is supported by the sudden revelation of a letter which spells everything out. There are also small things that don't work so well: for example, much is made of the use of formal vs. informal German vs. dialect in various encounters, but these shifts have to be directly explained in the text, which is pretty clunky.
There are some bright spots, such as Studer himself, who is grumpily entertaining, and the social commentary concerning the poorhouse (basically a work camp for the indigent) is interesting. However, on the whole, the story isn't particularly engaging, and is of limited appeal. Those who've read the other Studer novels, or have some particular interest in Swiss crime novels, or in older crime novels in general may find it engaging, but others probably not. It should also be noted that, throughout the book, references are made to previous cases Studer has solved -- without having read them I can't say, but they might well be spoilers for the three earlier books. (Translated by Mike Mitchell.)
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Chinamen at Bitter Lemon Press
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Thumbprint (1935; September 2004 in US)
- In Matto's Realm (1936; January 2006 in US)
- Fever (1935; November 2006 in US)
- The Chinaman (1938; December 2007)
- The Spoke (1937; 2009)
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- Wikipedia page for Friedrich Glauser
- Genre Go Round review of The Chinaman
- Monsters and Critics review of The Chinaman
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About the Author:
Friedrich Glauser was born in Vienna in 1896. Often referred to as the Swiss Simenon, he died aged forty-two a few days before he was due to be married. Diagnosed a schizophrenic, addicted to morphine and opium, he spent much of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and, when he was arrested for forging prescriptions, in prison. He also spent two years with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, after which he worked as a coal-miner and a hospital orderly. In 1939, a year after Glauser's death, the film of Thumbprint, the first Sergeant Studer mystery, was greeted with critical acclaim and commercial success. Studer became more famous than his creator, the mark of true success for a fictional detective.
Glauser's elegant prose and acute observation conjure up a world of those at the margins of society. His Sergeant Studer novels have ensured his place as a cult figure in Europe. Germany's most prestigious crime fiction award is called the Glauser prize.
Mike Mitchell has translated some thirty books, including Simplicissimus by Grimmelshausen and all the novels of Gustav Meyrink. He won the 1998 Schlegel-Tieck German translation prize.