In his novel Mysteries (1892), Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) offers a master class in how to open a story, introduce a main character, and create dramatic interest. Henry Miller called  the novel “closer to me than any other book I have read.”

The opening paragraphs set up the story and the basic plot in a suspenseful way that pulls in the reader. No wonder so many of the modern masters – including Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, and Charles Bukowski – admired Hamsun and considered him one of their greatest teachers.  According to Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”

Now let’s hear from Hamsun about the man in the yellow suit. 

MYSTERIES, Chapter 1 (Opening passage)

by Knut Hamsun

In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town. A stranger by the name of Nagel appeared, a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behavior and then vanished as suddenly as he had come…

It all started at six one evening when a steamer landed at the dock and three passengers appeared on deck. One of them was a man wearing a loud yellow suit and an outsized courduroy cap. It was the evening of the twelfth of June; flags were flying all over town in honor of Miss Kielland’s engagement, which had been announced that day. The porter from the Central Hotel went aboard and the man in the yellow suit handed him his baggage. At the same time, he surrendered his ticket to one of the ship’s officers, but made no move to go ashore, and began pacing up and down the deck. He seemed extremely agitated, and when the ship’s bell rang the third time, he hadn’t even paid the steward his bill. 

While he was taking care of his bill, he suddeny became aware that the ship was pulling out. Startled, he shouted over the railing to the porter below: “It’s all right. Take my baggage to the hotel and reserve a room for me.” 

With that, the ship carried him out into the fjord.

This man was Johan Nilsen Nagel.

The porter took his baggage away on a cart. It consisted of only two small trunks, a fur coat (although it was the middle of summer), a satchel, and a violin case. None of them had any identification tags. 

Photo: Men’s Wearhouse