The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre, by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky, Translated by Josh Billings
The Strugatsky brothers decided to take on the detective mystery format in the late 60s, but didn’t want to follow the traditional format of clue/twist/clue/reveal. Instead they created a literary parody that was part detective story, part science fiction yarn, and part ghost story. The result is a funny and bizarre tale of a murder in a small inn in the Swiss Alps.
The story opens with Detective Peter Glebsky arriving at the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. Glebsky isn’t a typical murder detective. Instead, he pursues financial frauds and corporate crimes but still gets to have the authority of a police inspector. The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is called that because the ghost of a dead mountaineer who had stayed there now haunts the rooms of the inn, and after checking in and meeting the owner Glebsky is shown the room where the mountaineer stayed which, today, still has a pipe with tobacco smoke drifting out of it on a table.
The inn has a rooftop solarium and communal dinners where guests meet and gather. Glebsky meets the strange collection of characters. A physicist, a rude rich man and his beautiful wife, a famous magician with his niece or nephew (no one is quite sure), and a few other people.
One night after dinner an avalanche blocks the only passage from the inn to the outside world. At the same time one of the guests is found dead in his locked room, the window left open with no footprints on the window and his head twisted at a 180 degree angle.
This begins a challenging investigation as Glebsky quizzes the owner and guests getting ever-changing answers. Meanwhile they all continue to dine and drink, sometimes with subtle passions, while the ghost moves items, steals from the guests, and locks himself into rooms. The final solution makes the book full-fledged science fiction when the secret of an immense trunk is revealed.
It’s a fun take on Agatha Christie-type mysteries, with archetypal characters given strange habits and personalities. The odd twists of plot and character gives the book its delicate humor.
The book was finally published in the USSR in 1970 after the typical changes and censorship the Strugatskys generally faced in their country. For this book, after the brothers tried to be scrupulously non-controversial, there was a decision that they were too apolitical for decent Soviet writers. The book was turned into a Russian film in 1979 and was first published in the US in 1982 and is sometimes listed as The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel or Inspector Glebsky’s Puzzle. As with many of the books by the brothers it deserves more attention and affection from US readers. Most of their books have been published in English translation but often fall out of print and are hard to find. It would be nice to see a house like Tor Books take them all on and promote them.