The Edge of the Imaginable: The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

What happens to a detective story when no solution is too implausible? Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is subtitled “One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre,” and it’s a telling choice of words. It’s an absurdist mystery, a critique of certain genre tropes, and a deeply strange narrative all at once. The story is almost archetypal: Glebsky, an inspector by trade, begins his stay at an isolated inn in the mountains. Also staying there are an odd assortment of characters, including a researcher, a hypnotist, a very intelligent dog, and quite possibly the ghost of the mountaineer for whom the inn is named. A body is found; mysterious letters are left, and it’s clear that at least one of these characters is not who they appear to be. It’s a familiar enough outline. But early on, the inn’s owner tells Glebsky, “I believe in anything that I can imagine.” It might as well be a manifesto for the story that follows.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn is the third of the Strugatskys’ novels to be released in a new stateside edition since early 2014. They’re probably best known for their 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, famously adapted for film by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker. But they’ve left an impression on writers both in Russia and abroad. Hari Kunzru wrote the introduction for Chicago Review Press’s new edition of Hard to Be a God. Sergei Lukyanenko, author of the Night Watch series, has named them as an influence. In his enthusiastic introduction to Melville House’s new edition, Jeff VanderMeer dubbed it “a novel that revels in every kind of tension, that inhabits every available transitional space.”

Uncertainty surrounds the events and characters in the novel. Initially comic, it becomes more and more philosophical, the juxtaposition of the narrative’s procedural elements recalling a scene from late in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, where a defense attorney makes use of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to confound the lines between guilt and innocence. A romantic liaison between two characters is halted when one appears to be lifeless–but said character is later seen up and about, seemingly none the worse for wear. Characters are mistaken for each other and take part in subconscious conspiracies. The true identities of a number of characters are thrown into question. The theme is advanced even further via a subplot that unfortunately hasn’t aged quite as well. Glebsky attempts (with little success) to determine the gender of one of the guests at the inn. The focus here is generally on Glebsky’s haplessness as opposed to an authorial criticism of characters that don’t conform to binary gender roles; still, some of his brusqueness can make him seem more boorish than sympathetic.

That may be the point, though. As the larger picture emerges, so does a fascinating reveal of the structure. Glebsky is a fine detective-story protagonist, but he’s in the wrong narrative; he’s trying to make sense of events based on a certain style of interpretation that isn’t suited for them. Or, as he’s told at one point.

You’re exploring alibis, gathering clues, looking for motives. But it seems to me that, in this particular case the usual terms of your art have lost their meaning, the same way that the concept of time changes meaning at speeds faster than light…

That sense of wrongness and displacement takes on an almost metafictional level. It’s also a quality that’s featured in some of the Strugatskys’ other works. Hard to Be a God, for one, is a story of medieval adventure and palace intrigue set in a world where the dashing, roguish hero is an explorer from a future Earth. And Definitely Maybe is a kind of domestic farce laced with sinister conspiracies and philosophical musings on the nature of existence. Among the Strugatskys’ protagonists, Glebsky is a particularly flawed one, bound by rules and codes that place him at odds with the righteousness that he ostensibly craves. There’s plenty of humor to be found in this novel, and the way that the plot gradually expands is intricate and constantly entertaining. Yet there’s also a sense of regret here. For as much as this book can leave the reader with a sense of delight, there’s a queasiness that accompanies its conclusion–that sense that unexamined values can leave you on the wrong side of history.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre

by Boris Strugatsky and Arkady Strugatsky

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