EDITOR’S NOTE: I was putting the final touches on my last post for the Tuesday Night Bloggers about great detectives (my topic was “Recipe for Success: the Six Best-Fed Sleuths”) when I was sent the article I include below. I think this sad news is appropriate to the TNG topic this month. My comments follow:)
Kaartinkaupunki, Finland. All hell has broken loose in both the literary world and the Finnish government as news breaks that officials of the National Coalition Party sought to suppress the death twenty-three days ago of Sven Hjerson, a guiding light in the world of criminal investigation whose exploits were recounted in fictional form by Ariadne Oliver, a lesser-known author of classic detective fiction whose decades-long feud with crime queen Agatha Christie led to the latter co-opting Oliver’s life for her own literary purposes. Hjerson died on his birthday. He was one hundred and seventy-four years old.
In order to maintain his privacy, Mr. Hjerson had colluded in the plan to fool the public into believing he was a literary character. However, just weeks before his death, he tried to turn the story around upon learning that he had not been included in the upcoming publication 100 Greatest Literary Detectives. After writing a scathing letter to Eric Sandberg, the editor of this guide to the best sleuths in crime fiction, Mr. Hjerson attended a luncheon as guest of honor of the Helsinki Vegetarian Society, where he announced: “Tulen ulos todellisen henkilönä!” (”I am coming out as a real person!”)
From that moment on, Hjerson shut himself up in his fashionable cottage in this suburb of the nation’s capital, a mere three miles from his birthplace, and wrote feverishly about his life, neglecting his already fragile health. His body was found on April 1 by his personal secretary, Ms. Onnea Sitruuna, who, after calling the authorities, sat down, typed up the dead man’s voluminous notes and faxed them to every major news source in the civilized world. The subesequent story combines detectival brilliance with a sordid tale of romantic betrayal involving Oliver and Christie. Both authors died in 1976, and family members refused to comment on this story, although in a brief statement to the press Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson, continued to propagate the myth that both Oliver and Hjerson were not real people.
Sven Hjerson was born April 1, 1844, in Kaartinkaupunki, a thriving seaside village and center for military training. His father Mikko was a fisherman and a notorious drunkard, who refused to send his son to school, instead putting him to work on his fishing boat, Vaalea Hevonen, at the tender age of 4. Young Hjerson was so traumatized by his father’s cruelty and the brutal life of a Finnish fisherman that he declared himself a vegetarian on his ninth birthday and never looked back. Fortunately, Hjerson’s mother Venla, a former schoolmistress, educated her son at home, honing the fine mind that would ensure her son’s placement in the Helsinki police force. Hjerson entered the service at the age of 15 without a signature of consent, his lean saturnine frame and sea-toughened skin making him look years older.
He rose through the ranks with astonishing rapidity, distinguishing himself as he cleaned up rampant organized crime (influenced by the Russian mobs) and the corrupt echalons of high society of government, earning him both praise from many Prime Ministers and the enmity of crime bosses and crooked politicians.
Hjerson made a name for himself in 1863 following his recovery of the crown jewels of Empress Maria Alexandrovna. His quashing of an international whitefish smuggling operation that was said to have covertly funded festivities following the coronation of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II, which led to the Khodynka tragedy, caused considerable friction between Russia and Finland but earned Hjerson fame and respect in his native country. The arrest and prosecution of a network of Helsinki mobsters who had set up a protection racket targeting fishermen up and down the nation’s coast cemented his reputation as a national hero.
Ironically, it also set him on a new course when he was forced to investigate the murder of his own father. When he proved that the killer was not a member of the mob but Mikko Hjereson’s own business partner, the heads or organized crime called off their contract on Hjerson’s life, figuring that here was a policeman who played fair. From then on, most of the cases Hjerson took were homicides. On April 1, 1904, during a celebration by his staff of his 60th birthday, Hjerson stood up, cried,”Tarpeeksi!” and walked off his job forever. Constant threats to his safety had prevented Finland’s top policeman from ever establishing strong personal ties, from marrying or fathering children. And so Hjerson retired to Tampere, bought some farmland and planned to perfect the Finnish avocado and sell them at the outdoor markets that are prevalent there. But a chance meeting one frosty morning in late April 1904 at the diner where he daily ate breakfast changed Hjerson’s life forever. The restaurant was unusually crowded, so Hjerson agreed to share a small table with a British tourist with voluminous hair and a booming voice.
Ariadne Freebody, a recent graduate in literature from Cambridge, had embarked on a journey around the world to soak up experience and decide her destiny as a writer. Thrust together by circumstance, the pair warmed to each other immediately. Miss Freebody provoked gales of laughter in her meal partner with tales of her college experiences, while Hjerson’s experiences solving crime fascinated the young woman – and inspired a career choice. She encouraged Hjerson not to waste his keen intellect on growing fruits and vegetables but to continue solving crimes in a private capacity.
She would become his chronicler, writing novels based on his most notorious cases. More as a lark and no doubt to impress a handsome woman, Hjerson agreed. He figured that this pact would require the two to meet frequently. This proved to be true, and even though Miss Freebody would reside in England and marry John Oliver five years later, the relationship between author and muse evolved into a passionate affair that lasted years – before exploding into a love/hate relationship that tortured both parties until the day Ariadne Oliver died. The first Sven Hjerson novel, The Clue of the Candle Wax (1906), did not sell many copies. Ironically, this was because Mrs. Oliver had the foolishness or the foresight to bypass the typical thriller style that was popular at the time and write a puzzle-oriented novel that would be made even more popular by later writers, notably Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley, who would be credited for beginning the Golden Age of Mystery.
One of Mrs. Oliver’s greatest disappointments was the lack of credit she received, despite writing 57 mystery novels featuring Sven Hjerson. In fact, many readers confused her with the more famous Christie, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Christie first snubbed Oliver because her first husband, Colonel Archie Christie, expressed admiration of Mrs. Oliver upon meeting her at a social event. Later, Christie created a fictionalized version of her rival author, going so far as to endow the novel’s character with the same name and portraying her as a foolish feminist. Mrs. Oliver threatened to sue, but the notoriety increased the popularity of her own books and she quietly dropped legal proceedings.
Eventually, the popularity of the Sven Hjerson series was superseded by the notoriety surrounding Oliver’s early personal life. Even after she married Mr. Oliver, Ariadne would travel to Helsinki several times a year, for weeksat a time, claiming that she was researching her latest book while in reality carrying on a shameless affair with her muse. This pattern of behavior was unsustainable and led to marital disaster in 1926, when a friend of the Olivers happened to dock in Helsinki while on a world cruise and saw the amorous lovers. Upon his return to Great Britain, the friend spilled the truth to John Oliver. This led to the infamous “Seven Day Disappearance” where Oliver abandoned his car on the side of the road and vanished without a trace. Ariadne flew back from Finland and joined the police in a search. After a fruitless week, the police, acting on an anonymous tip, located Mr. Oliver in a spa in Malvern where he was disguised in full drag, playing piano in the dining hall under the alias Nancy Neele.
The marriage was permanently derailed: Oliver filed for divorce, and Ariadne agreed to his terms in hopes of reuniting with her lover. But Hjerson refused to leave his native country, and the affair quickly soured. In 1934, in interviews with reporters, Mrs. Oliver stated, “I hate that damned Finn!” She threatened continuously to kill the character off but was sidetracked from this plan by her publishers and her fans. (The fictional Hjerson would be killed off in Oliver’s final book, The Body in the Library, reportedly written in 1942 and directed by the author to be published posthumously.) Hjerson flew to England in May 1976 to attend Mrs. Oliver’s funeral. He would not speak to reporters, but family members stated that, at the time of her death, the lovers had been separated for over forty-five years.
Mr. Hjerson returned to Finland and lived in quiet seclusion till his death two weeks ago. He is survived by a nephew.
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The above article appeared on news services around the world only yesterday. Last night, I watched Anderson Cooper shed tears as he reported about Hjerson’s death. And while I share this news with you in honor of the Tuesday Night Bloggers April focus on great detectives, as a fan of Ariadne Oliver, an all but forgotten GAD author, I choose to focus on the books rather than the gossip. I have been lucky enough to collect copies of all 57 of her books. I’m not sure how many of you have had the chance to read Ariadne Oliver, but hers are some of the most complex mysteries I have ever read.
In his review of her 1939 novel, The Muzzleford Inheritance, Todd Downing compared Oliver’s novel to another of that year’s publications, The Big Sleep, and said: “Ariadne Oliver makes Raymond Chandler read like A.A. Milne.” You can see this in the way her books are overladen with clues, maps, suspects and multiple twists. As Julian Symons noted, “Her clueing was as voluminous as her hair.” She was also a true maverick: I think she broke every one of Van Dine’s rules at least twice!
The great news is I hear that the one and only Curtis Evans is hard at work trying to get Oliver’s entire canon reprinted. Like so many prolific authors, she had her classics and her weaker books, so I thought I’d take a moment to describe my ten favorites. Should her work see the light of day again, these are the ones you should grab first. Or, if you’re like Ben at the Green Capsule, you could spread them around so that you don’t devour all the best ones first.
In chronological order, here are MY TOP TEN SVEN HJERSON MYSTERIES.
The Clue of the Candle Wax (1906): Hjerson is summoned by the owner of a rubber plantation to Borneo because the gentleman believes that he will be murdered during the Festival of the White Caps on the day before Vappu (that’s May 1, International Labor Day.) This debut novel is interesting more for its flaws than for its merits. For example, Hjerson is invited to be a guest at the planter’s mansion (see the floor plan), where he meets fifty-seven of the man’s relations, all with motives galore. After taking a week to sort out relationships Hjerson decides to take a break with his host and journey into town to watch the bathing of the nude statue of Havis Amanda, a tradition on the night before Vappu. It is here that his host is murdered, and all fifty-seven relations have alibis back at home and must be discounted from the rest of the case. I found the reversal frustrating, especially since I had spent so much time sorting out their names.
The Dying Goldfish(1908) Another family gathering for a holiday, yet a vast improvement on the first novel. Hjerson is invited to spend Michaelmas with an old flame and her family in Suomenlina, where he is nearly seduced by the woman’s twin daughters and must uncover the identities of a jewel thief, the head of a Satanic cult, and a multiple killer. It’s all great fun, despite a serious blunder the author eventually fessed up to in an interview in Vanity Fair: “That dreadful Finn of mine has got himself terribly tangled up. He did some awfully clever deduction with a dish of French beans, and how he’s just detected deadly poison in the sage and onion stuffing of the Michaelmas goose, and I’ve just remembered that French beans are over by Michaelmas.”
The Death in the Drainpipe (1914) Perhaps Oliver’s most stunning and complicated plot, in which Hjerson is invited to an international conference on crime at Scotland Yard and witnesses the shooting of six chief constables —–simultaneously! This was the only Oliver title to include a “Challenge to the Reader” – a controversial point in the author’s career, due to the fact that for the first printing, the challenge was placed by mistake twenty pages beforeit should have been, thereby eliminating two clues and making it impossible for the reader to deduce the truth. This is perhaps the only instance of a publisher issuing a recall of a novel. My friend Noah Stewart has told me that a copy of this first edition, even in fair condition, can net you a thousand pounds. Plus, they make great gag gifts for those fellow fans who annoy you by bragging they alwayssolve the case!
The Lotus Murder(1918) Based on one of Hjerson’s actual, most sensitive cases, this starts with the theft of government papers at an informal weekend party at the home of a high-ranking Cabinet minister. Oliver includes no less than sixteen maps and 147 physical clues. Alas, the “shocking twist ending” is not so shocking if you have read The Clue of the Candle Wax and realize that the endings are exactly the same!
Death of a Debutante(1922) This one is known for having the highest body count of any of Oliver’s novels; sixteen of the thirty-one major characters die, eight of them before Sven Hjerson catches a break in the case. Oliver later admitted she made things more difficult for her sleuth by mistakenly believing that sulphonal is soluble in water. “The whole thing is wildly impossible from start to finish,” she told a Times reporter. “It’s a wonder the Finn solved it at all!” The mistake would come back to haunt her after the publication of her best and favorite novel eight years later.
The Cat It Was Who Died (1928) One of Mrs. Oliver’s few impossible crimes set at an international cricket match in Perth where Hjerson has gone to watch his favorite nephew, Raymond länsi, compete. I have to admit that I tend to get the biggest kick from the novels where Mrs. Oliver really screwed up. The weapon in the fourth murder is a blowpipe, and the author makes her weapon a foot long, when everyone knows blowpipes are really six feet in length. This is especially problematic as the clues that lead us to the killer include the length of a character’s ring finger, a slice of three-week-old gooseberry tart, the presence of a cricket bat in the shrubbery, painted bright yellow with a wad of chewing gum stuck on the handle, and a woman’s prosthetic forearm.
The Affair of the Second Goldfish(1930) This was Mrs. Oliver’s favorite novel and a real change of pace. Most of it takes place underwater in a Finnish grotto that has been turned into a luxury inn. It is most cleverly clued, and you only need a bit of specialized knowledge about mustache wax, a blood disease called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, and the mating habits of the Asian giant hornet to solve the case.
But here’s the sad story: on the basis of the success of this novel, Oliver was invited to join London’s famed Detection Club. She had hoped to be initiated into membership, but she found she had been waylaid into a trap. A drunken Agatha Christie taunted Oliver with her previous mistakes involving poisons, and soon Dorothy Sayers and Clemence Dane joined Christie in a particularly lewd song spoofing Oliver’s love of apples and her not-so-secret love affair with Hjerson. The humiliated writer fled the meeting and never returned.
The Woman in the Wood(1938) This novel is based on a true occurrence in Oliver’s life. In 1935, the town of Upton Snodsbury (it’s in Worcestershire, near North Piddle) invited the film actress Edna Best, fresh off her success in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, to open their annual fete. Knowing what a mystery fan Miss Best was, the town council also invited Mrs. Oliver to create a Murder Hunt.
On the opening day of the fete, Miss Best declared that she would be the first to solve Mrs. Oliver’s game and set off with her first clue (a picture of a tennis racket). Unfortunately, she became hopelessly lost in the thick forest that surrounded the Great Hall. Feeling a bit responsible, Mrs. Oliver set off to find the missing actress but got caught in a freak rainstorm, which resulted in her being laid up at the Great Hall for three weeks with the flu. Miss Best reappeared two weeks later in London, safe and sound and just in time for her next film shoot. Her disappearance was never explained, but it inspired Mrs. Oliver while laid up in bed to draft the plot of this novel.
In a bizarre controversy, Agatha Christie published Dead Man’s Folly eighteen years later and then sued Mrs. Olvier for plagiarism of her plot. The case made it to court, but the subsequent confusion over the plaintiff having written her novel afterthe defendant led to an eventual stalemate and settlement.
She Asked for Death(1954) Some authors improve with age. Mrs. Oliver wasn’t one of them. This is one of the only mysteries written during the 50’s that is readable, but even then the plot doesn’t make much sense. Mrs. Oliver was interviewed about the impetus for the story, explained,
“You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind about somebody called Mrs. Canaby who is going home in a bus, having had a very strange interview somewhere where she saw someone in a pastry cook’s and was reminded of someone she’d only met once and who she had heard was dead and apparently isn’t dead.”
If you can follow this, it’s certainly possible it would make a good plot. We’ll never know because there is no Mrs. Canaby in this novel, there is no bus, no pastry cook, no character mistaken for dead. Instead, Hjerson himself falls under suspicion when his rich, elderly aunt is found dead in a monkey cage at the zoo in Vantaa. A mysterious message is scrawled in feces on the cage floor, but it isn’t clear for a full third of the book whether the message was created by Aunt Milla or by one of the monkeys.
The Body in the Library(1976) There’s some controversy surrounding this final case of Sven Hjerson because it’s actually quite good. Did Mrs. Oliver write it years earlier at the height of her powers and then put it aside, to be published after her death? Or did someone else ghost write this novel (rumor has it that either Theodore Sturgeon or Avram Davidson penned this)? Whatever the case, Mrs. Oliver goes back to basics: Sven Hjerson is invited to a dinner party at a notorious society maven’s chic Helsinki apartment. His hostess, Madame Saatana, informs him that each of the seven guests have gotten away with committing one of the seven deadly sins. When his hostess is murdered during a game of mah jongg, Hjerson and his fellow guests seek out her killer, despite the clear understanding that the culprit is one of them!
As each amateur sleuth uncovers a clue that inches them all closer to the truth, the murders pile up until there are only two characters left. And even then, Mrs. Oliver pulls her most stunning trick yet out of her hat and dazzles the reader with her panache.
I hope this post has helped familiarize you with an author and detective whose lack of recognition and republication in over forty years counts as one of the biggest travesties of justice in the literary world. I hope that Hjerson’s death will prod some savvy publisher to get cracking and re-release the entire Oliver canon, which should prompt Landberg to issue an apology and begin reprinting a corrected copy of his book. I myself will volunteer to write the entry. I’m open to any other ideas to get Sven Hjerson back into the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. Your suggestions are welcome in the comments section below.