Book review: Murder on Page Three by Ella Griffiths

Murder on Page Three
Ella Griffiths
  (translated by J. Basil Cowlishaw)
Quartet Crime 1984 (first published Norway 1982) 183 pp

Latest in my discovery of Scandinavian mystery authors is Ella Griffiths, who wrote Murder on Page Three back in the 1980s. The novel instantly pulls you in with its brisk yet chatty style, as we follow the thoughts of author Karin Ullestad, “Norway’s Agatha Christie”, as she struggles listlessly in the heat of the summer to find the inspiration to start her new detective novel – in which her publisher has requested: “Make sure there’s a murder in the first chapter. The best would be on page three.” Karin isn’t too settled, though, partly because of the heat which she and her dog Lucky find hard to bear; partly because Karin’s husband Jan has left her a few months ago – although the separation is semi-amicable, we gather from Karin’s thoughts that Jan is doing pretty well out of it; and partly because Karin is distracted by an old lady on the doorstep of her neighbour’s house. These neighbours, the Hansdals, are both teachers and are away in their summer cottage for the school holidays. Karin is keeping an eye on the house for them in their absence and so helps the old lady enter, using her own key.  She goes back to attempt to work, thinking nothing more of it – until the next day, when she gets a nasty shock: there has been a murder and the Hansdals' house has been ransacked.

What follows is a solid, tranditional detective story, as the team of police investigate all the possible leads, sometimes helped but more often not by the extended acquaintanceships of Karin, the Handsals and their student  son and daughter, and the staff of the nursing home where Mrs Olsen, the old lady, lived.  Until some way through, the novel treads a balance between a classic “cosy” mystery and a police procedural. Then, however, an event is discovered that casts a darker shadow over the proceedings. Nevertheless, the plot continues to unfold at a brisk pace, as the police – mainly brothers Rudolf and Karsten Nielsen, exhaustively run down every possible clue and every possible person who might be involved.

An interesting twist is given by the fact that the reader knows more than the police about the motive for the crime, so can fairly easily guess what is at the bottom of the many rather confusing and apparently disconnected discoveries. The police, without access to this information, gradually piece together the witness statements, forensic evidence and the fruits of much solid detective work to discover the perpetrator.  There are several red herrings among the suspects, including my two main contenders, so I would think that this attractively written novel, extremely well served by the naturalistic style provided by the translator, J. Basil Cowlishaw, will provide a satisfyingly challenging conundrum to the keen consumer of detective novels.  Although there is an upbeat aspect to the ending for a couple of the characters, the book leaves a sad impression – more so than might have been anticipated from its breezy tone.

I found out about this book via this post at Euro Crime blog. I managed to find second-hand copies of Murder on Page Three and The Water Widow on Amazon.

7 thoughts on “Book review: Murder on Page Three by Ella Griffiths

  1. This is one of those books that sounds awfully familiar – I suspect I read it in my travels somewhere before I started keeping a record of the titles I’ve read.

  2. Maxine – Thanks, as always, for your review. I always like it so much when there’s a solid balance in a book between the characterization, etc., that goes with a cozy and accurate police procedure. It’s interesting, too, when an author can add a touch of the darker side, so to speak, to a cozy. That’s not easy to achieve.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Bernadette and Margot. This is always happening to me, Bernadette, and I can certainly never remember the ending, even if I can remember any of the plot. Yes indeed, Margot, it was very nice to read such a solid book with a light touch and yet introduce a chill to the proceedings. A good read.

  4. In an idle moment I typed in my own name and lo and behold, up came your review of Murder on Page Three. It’s years ago that I translated it, along with The Water Widow and a handful of Ella Griffiths’s short stories, one of which was adapted for television by Anglia. Ella was my first (but fortunately not my last) Norwegian girlfriend when I came here in May 1945 with the RAF during the Liberation. We lost touch in the intervening years, but someone gave her my name as a translator and we managed to get our act together and as a result she was published in the UK. She died about ten years ago. I’ve done a lot of translation work since, mostly non-fiction, but I did manage to get a book published in the USA – The Spy Who Longed for Home – but its launch coincided with glasnost, so it never took off. Sold about 900 copies, I believe.
    If you’d like to get in touch, do so by all means.

  5. How kind of you to comment here, Basil, and what a fascinating, if sad, story. I have The Water Widow yet to read on my shelf. I’m away at the moment but will be in touch when I return home. I’ll also see if I can track down your novel.

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