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Hans Scherfig: Den forsvundne fuldmægtig (The Missing Bureaucrat)

Scherfig uses the detective story form to tell his story (invariably criticism of the bourgeoise) and he does it to great effect here. The book is written in a matter-of-fact, unemotional way, almost like a journalistic article, reporting on two apparently unrelated disappearances/deaths in Copenhagen. Indeed, we get a brief summary of the story right at the beginning. The first concerns Teodor Amsted. Amsted is a Head Clerk in the War Department. He is a respectable man, devoted to his job and family and very punctilious in all that he does. He has been married for eighteen years and, in all that time, he has never spent a night away from his wife. They have a thirteen-year old son, Leif. Amsted leaves his office punctually at five o’clock every day and arrives home exactly twenty minutes later. If the weather is bad, he may take the bus but this does not save him any time. Only once in all his eighteen years has he not arrived home at 5.20 p.m. and that was when he had an abscess in his tooth and he had to leave early to go to the dentist. So when he does not arrive home at 5.20 and is still not there much later, Mrs Amsted is very concerned. Eventually, she calls the police. They learn that he left work at 2 p.m., after receiving a letter from a courier. However, there is no trace of him in the local hospitals, no indication from whom the letter came and no sign of him. However, his office do receive a suicide note from him but, because of their internal letter-opening procedures, it is not seen immediately.

A few days later the police receive the report of a second disappearance. A landlady, Mrs Møller, reports that her tenant, Mikael Mogensen, has disappeared, owing her fifteen kroner. Mogensen is something of a tramp. He has no visible means of support though, occasionally, seems to have money. He has only one set of clothes, very dirty. He sleeps on the floor. However, he is clearly an educated man, as he reads in various languages, has been known to ask the newsagent for the London Times and has several books in his room. It seems that he had some money shortly before his disappearance and had something of a party just before. The police are understandably less concerned about Mogensen than about Amsted. A few days later, an army patrol, looking for an unexploded shell after an exercise, finds the remains of a man who has been almost completely blown apart. However, his watch and bits of clothing are found. The clothing is a special cloth, made in London but sold by only one tailor in Copenhagen. It was worn by Amsted. The watch is clearly his. In short, it seems clear that the body is Amsted’s. But who killed him? It seems to have been suicide as it appears that he had placed the explosives around his body and in his pockets as well as in his mouth. However, there seems to be no reason why Amsted would have killed himself. The police eventually make a few connections between the two disappearances/deaths but cannot explain what happened and where Mogensen is.

The story then jumps to the rural area, where Herbert Johnson, apparently a Dane who had emigrated to the United States, is now returning to his home country to spend the rest of his days. He rents a room in Jens Jensen’s farm. Jensen is a widower and lives with his adult daughter, Karen. The Jensens are very quiet people which seems to suit Johnson, who likes only to walk and enjoy an easy life. But who is Johnson? He takes to walking and then starts collecting pond life for a mini-aquarium, something that he had not been able to have as a child or, indeed, in his married life. The locals, somewhat reluctantly, accept him.

But the point of this novel is to mock the bourgeoisie. The police come out well but the others do not. For example, when one of the detectives visits Amsted’s office, no-one seems to now where the office is, till, finally a cleaner directs him. When he gets there, the first two people he speaks to are fast asleep while the third is reading Treasure Island. The punctilious nature of Amsted is certainly mocked but, after his death, Mrs Amsted is mocked even more, particularly when she takes up spiritualism, to get in touch with her late husband which, of course, she does, with the aid of a spiritualist. Scherfig strongly makes the point that the bourgeois life is constraining, hypocritical and narrow-minded and that the bourgeois achieve nothing. Even Mogensen is compared favourably, for at least he has his individual freedom. We shall meet him again in Scherfig’s work.

Publishing history

First published by Gyldendal in 1938
First published in English by Fjord Press in 1988
Translated by Frank Hugus