Friday, September 22, 2023

The Man in the Cellar

 The Man in the Cellar (1907; aka Amy's Cat) by Palle Rosenkrantz

Holger Nielson is a Danish lawyer and amateur criminologist on a three month holiday in London. Nielson may be a lawyer, but he has unusual ideas about law and order and justice. He has long thought that just because there is a crime it does not follow that the perpetrator is a criminal. During his stay in London, he wants to observe the British mode of justice and refine his ideas. He rents a house which he plans to share with his friend Dr. Jens Koldby who has given up his practice in favor of painting. The house is a bit more expensive than Nielson would have liked, but it is admirably set up with a well-lighted room that will be perfect as a studio for Koldby.

The men move in along with Madame Siverston, their housekeeper, and all goes well until both Nielson and Madame Siverston begin hearing odd noises from below. It sounds like a cat may be trapped and hungry in the basement. But when they investigate there is no trace of a cat. It isn't until the housekeeper is gone for the day that the men do a more intensive search and discover a cellar hidden below a concealed trap door. They find the cat...but they also find a long, sealed box that contains a dead man. A dead man whose face has been obliterated and whose clothes have had the tags removed. Contrary to his stated beliefs, Nielson's first thought is to go for the police. But Koldby tells him this is the chance to prove his theories of justice. Besides....they might be considered the prime suspects and they don't want to go to jail.

And so begins their amateur investigation. They discover that the previous owner of the house, a Major Johnson, has "gone to the colonies"--but there is some evidence that he may have never left and might be the man in the cellar. There is the question of who really owned the house--Major Johnson or a man named Throgmorton? There is also the chain around the cat's neck bearing the inscription "Amy's Puss" and a love note addressed to "James" and signed by Amy. Questions put to the realtor leads them to two Amys. The first is Miss Derry, the former fiancee of Major James Johnson. The second is Mrs. Weston, sister of Mr. Throgmorton, and there's rumors that Major Johnson was enamored with her. Did one of the Amys do away with Major Johnson because of love gone wrong? Or maybe Mrs. Weston or Major Johnson killed her husband to pave the way for a new relationship? The theories fly fast and furious and Nielson and Koldby wind up following Throgmorton and the Westons to Denmark in the search for more clues.

This is an interesting look at early Danish crime fiction. The writing still has elements of Victorian sensation novels, but there is also a Holmesian feel to the investigation with definite detection. Nielson as our lead is more Watson-like--he jumps from theory to theory as new information is found while Koldby brings him down to earth and reminds him that they don't have all the facts yet. The two do make a good team and I enjoyed watching Koldby poke holes in Nielson's theories. An intriguing mystery with some unorthodox detective work and a fairly satisfying ending. Without the sensation elements and the one rather contrived bit of coincidence once the men are back in Denmark, this would have been a four-star novel. ★★ and 1/2 (rounded up on Goodreads & Amazon). If you are interested in the roots of Scandinavian crime before it became Nordic Noir or you're looking for a good mystery and don't mind a bit of Victorian melodrama and an element of coincidence, then I can definitely recommend this to you.

First line: "It is dirt cheap, sir, dirt cheap!"

And Mr. Anderson tried to look superior but failed because of his thin yellow mustache. (p. 3)

Of course, he knew that there was at least one cat in each house in London, all well-treated animals that enjoyed some kind of civil rights, under no constraint, and able to pass their lives day and night as they pleased. (p. 10)

Everyone has a right to ride his hobby horse if he does so only within his own four walls-- (p. 39)

Only in comedies and bad novels is the right thing said first. In life it is always the other way around. (Dr. Koldby; p. 104)

Last line: So, they found happiness and life together.


Deaths = 5 (one stabbed; one drowned; three natural)

 ~~~A pdf copy of the book was given to me as a review copy by Kazabo Publishing in exchange for an honest review. All comments are my own and I have received no payment of any kind.

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