These days, my favorite genre books are the ones that don’t fit neatly into any genre. Most of the genre-benders I’ve read, however, blend their tropes together and smooth over any friction. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Right for the Detective Genre does not do that. Rather, the mystery genre and the science fiction genre seem to be at war with each other. The conflict jars, but it’s supposed to be jarring. It’s jarring to protagonist Inspector Peter Glebsky, who thought he was investigating a closed room mystery only to find himself in the middle of a bizarre science fiction escapade. The really weird thing about this book is that it all works.
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky are not well known outside of Russia, except by connoisseurs of Golden Age science fiction in translation. I only recently found out about the brothers because their books—considered classics in Russia—are being re-translated and re-published in English. Ezra Glinter recently published an essay-cum-review of the Strugatskys and The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn for The Paris Review. Glinter remarks:
The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery.
Jeff VanderMeer—a leading light in the New Weird genre—makes similar comments in his introduction to this edition of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. VanderMeer writes, “they strove to create a narrative that, underneath its seeming whimsy, would be “paradoxical,” complete with an unexpected twist” (Introduction*).
This is pretty much what happens with The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. The novel begins has a (fairly) straightforward mystery. Peter Glebsky, police inspector and bureaucrat, arrives at the eponymous inn in an unnamed country for a two week vacation. He is looking forward to relaxing, being away from all the cares of his job and his family. The other guests of the inn and its owner, unfortunately for Glebsky, are the strangest pack of weirdos and eccentrics he’s ever met. Then there’s an avalanche and a guest turns up with a broken neck in a room locked from the inside.
Although he’d rather wait for the local police to deal with it, Glebsky is pushed into investigating what happened to the goliath Olaf Andvarafors. Like any good inspector, Glebsky begins by establishing timelines and questioning alibis—much to the annoyance of the other guests. Clues abound, but none of them makes sense. Just as Glebsky thinks he knows what happened and why, something else will turn up that doesn’t fit or completely destroys the inspector’s theories. The owner of the inn, who has his own explanations, comments, “You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in unnatural places” (147).
The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn takes place over the course of just a few days. But in the course of those few days, things get incredibly weird. Soon the physicist staying at the hotel confronts Glebsky with his version of events: “Things are quite a bit more complicated than you think, Inspector” (213). When Glebsky objects, the physicist soothes him by saying, “No ghouls. No mumbo-jumbo. Just solid science fiction” (214). And the physicist, against all odds, is correct. Glebsky is not in a mystery story: he’s landed smack in the middle of science fiction. For once, Sherlock Holmes’ maxim about eliminating the impossible is wrong.
Though this synopsis no doubt makes the The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn sound bewildering, it’s a hilarious read (in a Russian kind of way). The humor tends very much towards the absurd and satirical, and I found myself laughing more than once at exchanges like this one after the avalanche. Glebsky is quizzing the inn’s owner about supplies:
“How about fuel? I asked.
“There’s always my perpetual motion machines.”
“Hmm…” I said. “Are they made of wood?” (81)
Towards the end of the novel, as the weirdness finally wears Glebsky down enough to consider the possibility of shape-changing aliens, robots, and gangsters, he comments, “I’m just a police officer. I don’t have clearance to carry on conversations with ghouls and aliens” (222).
The humor in The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is very different from anything else I’ve encountered in Russian literature outside of Gogol. It is not like the gallows humor that Ian Frazier describes in his essay for The New York Review of Books about Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms. Frazier declares, “Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.” There’s something delightfully frivolous about the Strugatsky brothers’ work.
I’m grateful to publishing houses like Melville House for rescuing books like The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn from obscurity. This book is as fresh and strange as it was in 1970.
* Quotes from The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn are from the 2015 kindle edition by Melville House, translated from the Russian by Josh Billings.