The Three Old Ladies’ Tea opens with a young man appearing at a tram stop in the middle of the night, where he begins undressing before collapsing into a coma-like state, all while a policeman looks on uncomprehendingly. And in these opening paragraphs, we find the template by which Friedrich Glauser will continue to draw his readers through this early German-language detective novel. Peter Kalnin, who has done those of us who do not read German a great service with his strong and able translation, notes in his introduction that this was an early attempt by Glauser that has been overshadowed by his five later detective novels. Nonetheless, The Three Old Ladies’ Tea is a fascinating and entertaining trip to the Geneva of the past.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to three devices Glauser uses to push his story to its conclusion: stereotypes, sudden and mysterious occurrences, and erroneous assumptions. Our first character kicks off the long line of stereotypical figures: “He’s bored, this policeman is, and aches for a glass of wine–because he’s from the Swiss canton of Vaud, and for him wine is the epitome of home.” Glauser continues in this manner for the rest of the novel, introducing characters simply and providing them a role to play that differentiates and motivates them through the plot, from the young college student so infatuated with a spy that he will do what she asks just to please her, to the English journalist so driven to solve the case independently that he repeatedly falls prey to his own misguided assumptions. But rather than coming off as lazy or malicious in his use of these stereotypes, Glauser’s is a useful system of keeping the variegated cast identified throughout the story and, while his contemporary readers may have found these stereotypes to be recognizable jabs, those of us reading it at such great distance of time, place, and language will likely find it as enlightening as it is helpful.
The second tool Glauser repeatedly puts to use, and not uncommon to the genre, is the sudden, apparently unexplainable occurrence. In the opening, we find: “Suddenly a young person is standing in front of the tram shelter–God only knows where he popped up so suddenly.” With this, the action is underway and we have met our first (soon-to-be) murder victim. The story that follows as the deaths are investigated is rife with these sudden and God-only-knows happenings that keep the reader guessing, even as the detectives and journalist themselves search for answers, finding numerous dead ends and innocent suspects. Often at fault for these dead ends are the investigators’ assumptions. Like the policeman in the opening scene quickly learns, appearances can be deceiving: “And while Officer Malan is still pondering whether the man is actually drunk or not, the half-dressed man sways even more, gropes at the air with his hands, doesn’t find anything to hold onto, and crashes onto the pavement with the back of his head.” And while it takes but a few minutes for the policeman to discover his mistake and learn that this man is not inebriated but rather has been poisoned, many later assumptions take the rest of the story to correct, only being cleared up in the final scenes where the killer is brought to justice of a sort.
So while this novel may not be the peak of Glauser’s mystery writing, it is an engaging story of murder, medicine, and mysticism with an international cast of characters that rewards its readers for their close attention. What’s more, it is historically significant as an early German-language detective novel. As one character notes: “Dig into man, and you will always find a layer that is old, primeval. Millions of years perhaps, who knows?” Glauser may not take us back quite that far, but he is undoubtedly worth digging into.
By Ben Beach