Book review: Final Curtain, by Kjersti Scheen

31 05 2017

Kjersti Scheen is a Norwegian journalist, illustrator, and author. She has won several national literary awards for her children’s fiction. She’s also achieved some success as a crime fiction writer, with at least five novels featuring private detective (and former actor, former police officer) Margaret Moss, though only one of these appears to have seen translation into English.

FinalCurtain

Final Curtain (Teppefall, 1994, translated by Louis Muinzer) bears no apparent relation to Ngaio Marsh’s novel of the same name, though both revolve around actors, infidelity, and murder. It’s the first of the Margaret Moss novels, in which Margaret is hired by her friend Rosa to investigate the disappearance of Rosa’s sister Rakel, an actor of some acclaim, on a train journey between Oslo and Bergen. There’s no motive discernible for Rakel’s disappearance, nor anything substantial by way of clues, so Margaret simply starts out by interviewing those of her acquaintances who have also known Rakel. But it’s not until her life is threatened that Margaret realises she may indeed be onto something …

The writing is staccato and rather choppy. I’m not sure how much of this is authorial style and how much might represent infidelities in the translation: I did find it notable that several of the characters were not consistently named. Georg is occasionally George, Karlsen is sometimes Karlesen, Rosa is Rose in some circumstances, and Cecelie makes at least one appearance as Cecilia, all of which does leave one wondering how much of the rest of the text is reliable. (Of course, Scheen wouldn’t be the first author to not be sure how her characters’ names were spelt, and I must concede some uncertainty, in my mid-20s, as to the spelling of my own middle name …) But though the prose sometimes muddles through in much the same way that Margaret muddles through the process of detection, the story does have enough of a pulse to it, particularly once it hits the second half, that the reader’s interest is maintained. And Margaret is an interesting character in her own right: there are the almost-obligatory problems with alcohol, but her relationship with her teenage daughter is well-drawn, her past is plausibly cluttered, her love life is haphazard and a trifle reckless, her dependence on a car and a dwelling that are each in significant need of repair causes problems and frustrations which add, in subtle ways, to the difficulty of her case as well as, on occasion, providing opportunities for understated humour. (I’m also inclined to view favourably any detective who sports a Moomin lapel badge: Moss’s is of ‘the little chap in a pointed cap who likes to travel’.)

The cover of the edition I read makes a direct comparison between Scheen’s writing and that of fellow Norwegian crime novelist Pernille Rygg: it’s an appropriate analogy, given the quirky characterisation (and unnecessary risk-taking by amateur-sleuth protagonists) in the works of both writers, though Rygg’s Igi Heitmann is a rather more cerebral creation than Scheen’s Margaret Moss, who seems to operate almost purely on instinct (and an aptitude for the lucky break just when she needs it most).

Ultimately, the explanation for Rakel’s disappearance is sufficiently involved, sufficiently unpredictable, and sufficiently plausible to justify the novel’s length, and Moss is a sufficiently intriguing character that it would be good to see rather more of her in English translation than just this one book.