All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
— Ronald Knox
NO GENRE OF PROSE, common wisdom and Monsignor Ronald Knox would have us know, is as stringently rule-bound as the classic whodunit. Supplement Knox’s notorious “Ten Commandments” (1929), the second of which is dangling above as an epigraph, with S. S. Van Dine’s even stricter “Twenty Rules” (1928), and you’ll soon find yourself regulated into a veritable locked room. The whole thing makes Edmond Hoyle look pretty laissez-faire by comparison. It’s no wonder, really, that the classic detective story has lent itself so well to structural analyses like Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948), replete with diagrams. And there is certainly a lot of truth to Tzvetan Todorov’s rather devastating observation that, since the “whodunit par excellence is not the one which transgresses the rules of the genre, but the one which conforms to them[,] the best novel will be the one about which there is nothing to say.”
Indeed, the classic whodunits that get talked about most are precisely the ones that toy with the reader’s expectations, standing the genre on its head without breaking it apart altogether. Of Agatha Christie’s 66 novels, it’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) that winds up on college course syllabi. Roger Ackroyd is the Inverted Jenny of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction — valuable because it rests on a massive stack of nearly identical books, from which it differs in one essential feature. The novel is Christie’s masterpiece — a trick shot — but she was only allowed to play the trick once.
Some tricks, however, are simply not allowed, not even once. To play them would spoil the game. Of course, that may be the author’s intent. Friedrich Dürrenmatt certainly made no bones about his mission in his deconstructive The Pledge (1958), subtitling it Requiem for the Detective Novel. Apparently, it was Dürrenmatt’s daring that inspired the Soviet masters of science fiction, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, to try their own hand at a new type of detective novel, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn (1970). In his 1998 memoir, Boris Strugatsky claims the brothers’ experiment had noble aims. Unlike Dürrenmatt, they were great fans of the detective genre, which was only then regaining its place in Soviet literature, having been essentially banished since the 1930s. In fact, Boris writes that “Arkady, who spoke fluent English, was a great connoisseur of Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, John le Carré and other masters who were, in those years, little known to the Russian mass reader.”
The problem with the detective story, as the brothers Strugatsky saw it, was that, “in the end — no matter how captivating the twists and turns of the investigation had been — [the reader experiences] an inevitable decline of interest as soon as the who, why and what for are revealed.” They decided to experiment. The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn would take a “sudden somersault” precisely at the point where the reader’s interest was to decline: “one story would end, lending way to a completely different one.” By the brothers’ own estimate, they didn’t land the somersault: “One cannot break the age-old canons […]. The experiment failed because it couldn’t have succeeded.” Yet, as a glorious failure, the novel does exactly what Todorov’s “whodunit par excellence” doesn’t do: it offers us a great deal to talk about.
But let’s begin by discussing what the brothers get so right. For today’s Anglophone reader, the world of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn appeals on several levels. Arkady’s voracious reading of detective stories had certainly paid off. We immediately find ourselves in the capable hands of an eminently approachable investigator, Police Inspector Peter Glebsky, whom trouble follows. All Glebsky wants is two weeks away from the hustle and bustle of la ville tentaculaire, where crime never sleeps — and other pressures also abound:
I mean, I love my children, my wife, I get along well with my family, and the majority of my friends and acquaintances are quite polite and pleasant. But to have them coming around one after the other, and there’s no possibility — not even the smallest one — of getting out of it, detaching myself, disconnecting, locking myself away …
Peter Glebsky, everyman. Just more skilled, logical, and observant than most. Here’s how the narrative opens:
I stopped the car, got out and took off my sunglasses. Everything was exactly as Zgut had said it would be. The inn was two stories high, a yellowish-green color, with a mournful looking sign hanging over the front porch that read, “THE DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S INN.” Deep spongy snowdrifts on either side of the porch bristled with different-colored skis — I counted seven of them, one with a boot still on it.
Glebsky’s the kind of guy who counts skis. Nothing gets past him. And so we readers can rest assured that nothing will get past us. After all, as Knox’s eighth commandment dictates, “The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.” So there’s our first potential clue: an odd number of skis. But the skis are far from the Inn’s only oddity.
First, there’s the proprietor Alek Snevar’s almost fanatical devotion to the legacy of the titular mountaineer, who fell “two hundred meters straight down, to his death. There was nothing for him to catch hold of on the smooth rock. Perhaps he cried out. Nobody heard him. Perhaps he prayed. Only God was listening.” Snevar keeps the man’s room exactly as he’d left it and takes care of his magnificent St. Bernard, named Lel. Then there are the guests: the scientist Simone, recovering from a nervous breakdown and “always playing billiards and crawling up the walls”; the celebrated hypnotist and magician Du Barnstoker, traveling with the flirtatious, troublemaking androgyne adolescent Brun, “the sole progeny of [his] dear departed brother”; the traveling salesman Albert Moses and his knockout of a wife, who claim to be passing through — though the valley surrounding the inn is a dead end; the mysterious Hinkus, a youth counselor on sick leave; and the strapping, Viking-like Olaf Andvarafors, who will soon be found in his room (locked, naturally, from the inside) with his head “turned one hundred and eighty degrees in a brutal and unnatural fashion.”
Wait a minute. Zgut, Snevar, Simone, du Barnstoker, Moses, Hinkus, Andvarafors — and I haven’t even mentioned Luarvik L. Luarvik … Where is this inn, anyway? It’s somewhere in the Alps, of course — high up in the bourgeois West of the Soviet imagination. On the one hand, the Strugatskys were essentially obligated to set their novel in the West if they wanted it published; decadent crimes and characters of the sort depicted here simply couldn’t exist in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the Golden Age whodunit is very much a Western genre; by setting their novel at a secluded cosmopolitan inn in the middle of Europe, the brothers were paying homage to the tradition. And since, as far as the Soviet censors were concerned, there was no limit to the West’s decadence, the brothers could let their imaginations run wild. And what imaginations! One can sense the joy of invention on every page. The Strugatskys were having a ball — or rather, a campy masquerade, with the gender-bending Brun providing decorations in the form of placards “to be hung on the cop’s door”: “Down with generalizations! Meet the moment!” The West of the 1960s had certainly gotten itself into a fine mess …
The West? But something just doesn’t figure … Glebsky. That’s a Russian name, isn’t it? Not quite. Not as the Strugatskys spell and treat it in Cyrillic. In fact, it looks something like a Russian name transliterated into Latin script, and then back again. The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn isn’t just a Soviet-era funhouse-mirror reflection of the West; it’s a hall of mirrors. The Strugatskys were masters of Aesopian language, a Russian tradition of evading censorship and official reproach through circumlocution and allegorical suggestion. Their primary genres, science fiction and fantasy, proved to be the perfect vehicles for veiled commentary on Soviet society; even more importantly, they allowed the brothers to explore broader moral and philosophical questions that, officially, had no place in Soviet reality, and hence could not be raised in literature tasked with reflecting and shaping that reality. The universes of Hard to Be a God (1964), Definitely Maybe (1974), and Roadside Picnic (1971), which served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), are not exactly our own, close as some of them may appear. Though this didn’t always protect the Strugatskys from censorship, it gave them plausible deniability. They could tackle issues such as man’s intellectual progress, the extent of his individual agency, and his social organization, because they weren’t dealing with Soviet man, exactly, but with his fantastic double — who was off to the side, or far in the future, or deep in the past. Nevertheless, for their Soviet readers, the parallels were clear. At the same time, the questions the Strugatskys were able to raise are timeless, and the parallels of their world to that of today’s reader should be just as clear.
Here, in their one trip into the parallel genre of detective fiction, the fantasists adapt, mutatis mutandis, their usual device. The not-quite-Russian, not-quite-Western Glebsky positions the universe of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn on a precipice between worlds. Whatever the novel implies about the condition of Western man goes for Soviet man as well. We’re all in the same room, and there’s no sense locking it.
So what does the novel imply? It’s time to talk of the Strugatskys’ cardinal sins against detective fiction. Looking to maintain the reader’s interest at novel’s end, the brothers appear to fall back into their comfort zone, which just happens to be a generically forbidden one. Without spoiling the details of the twist, let’s just say that Father Knox’s prohibition on “supernatural or preternatural agencies” goes somersaulting out the window. At least it may … Definitely maybe. The fact is — the facts remain ambiguous. The solution to the puzzle could be the presence of aliens, or it could be something else. Glebsky refuses to weigh in, and simply detains the potential culprits, although the nature of their crime itself is now open to question. After all, as he says, “I’m just a police officer. I don’t have the clearance to carry on conversations with ghouls and aliens.” His reluctance to believe the “alien” theory, which Simone the scientist insists is not only plausible but true, leads to disaster for his detainees. It also leads to a lifetime of second-guessing and regret. In fact, it isn’t the presence of aliens that undermines the Strugatskys’ book, nor is it Glebsky’s failure to reason correctly. The problem is indeterminacy — the inadequacy of reason itself.
The Strugatskys began their career in the late 1950s with highly optimistic science fiction stories set in the Noon Universe. These depictions of mankind’s harmonious future, attained through the continued development of society along Marxist lines and rapid technological advancement, reflected the genuine optimism of that time. The so-called Thaw under Khrushchev ushered in a spirit of general liberation. Loosened censorship opened the door to young poets and authors who were now free to write about private feelings, and even to criticize the sins of the past. And the Soviet scientific intelligentsia had even greater cause to rejoice: the Soviet Union was winning the space race and outstripping the rest of the world in the fields of physics, engineering, and cybernetics. And the Soviet consumer, too, was reaping the benefits of a planned economy that, thanks precisely to engineering and cybernetics, finally showed promise of performing as planned.
In this atmosphere, the Strugatskys’ narratives of a bright future, of peaceful cohabitation in a universe full of sentient humanoids (which Soviet scientists of that period fully expected to contact at any point) resonated with their readers, who were living through the USSR’s unexpected second chance. Unfortunately, by the late 1960s, the dream had soured. A cynical attitude began to take root — an attitude shaped by the slow erosion of hope. The Strugatskys’ work is a barometer of this process, growing far more interesting, far funnier, but also far more sardonic as the years wore on.
Their failed detective novel can be read as a dual indictment of the failed world in which they lived. If we are to accept the science fictional solution, then we are forced to accept the reality that mankind simply isn’t ready to join the universe’s community of advanced sentient beings. The tragic figure of Simone, a scientist who wishes to help mankind and its neighbors, but instead suffers a nervous breakdown, “climbs the walls,” and ends up dying years later in bitter silence, tells us everything we need to know about the eroded hopes of the 1960s. And the novel’s greater failure — its undermining of the genre — can also, by extension, be read as a little requiem for the system. What the genre of detective fiction and Soviet ideology have in common is total faith in the power of reason; indeed, both are, in their own ways, caricatures of Enlightenment ideals. The faultless ratiocinations of the master detective are just as unrealistic, just as contrary to human nature as the targets of the Five-Year Plan. It all should work, in theory, but reality is a far messier thing.
Midway through the novel, Glebsky and Snevar discuss the pressing questions of their time over a “pitcher of hot port”:
Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens); Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible) …
This is the Strugatskys at their best, at once silly and dead serious. Yes, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is a poor whodunit — because it’s far better than that.
And whatever else it might be, it’s a ripping good yarn, which translator Josh Billings has rendered with great energy and wit. Pour yourself a pitcher of hot port, and prepare to contemplate the unknown. “Haven’t you ever noticed,” Snevar asks Glebsky, “how much more interesting the unknown is than the known? The unknown makes us think — it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.”