Archive for March, 2011

And there was someone waiting for him.

28 March 2011

Rhea Nielsen first appears in The Locked Room, the eighth novel in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Image from Wickipedia

I recently finished up re-reading the ten Martin Beck novels… which I highly recommend.

These detective stories are funny, poignant, political, and have the some of the best pacing anywhere. Read them. Start with Roseanna and read the series in order. This is the third brief blog article (earier articles: Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Great Martin Beck Series and The tired heroes) where I’ve explored them, and today I’ll focus on solutions, and especially on the character Rhea Nielsen.

(Note that there’s a lot of great great stuff in the series that I haven’t touched on – these blog articles just barely scratch the surface.)

The fictional Martin Beck is the lead detective on a team of Stokholm police detectives. Beck is featured in a ten novel series, collectively known as The Story of Crime, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, dating from the mid-1960s to the mid1970s. These novels are the forerunners for later popular Swedish detective fiction, including work by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were a wife and husband team; both journalists with literary aspirations. She, a poet. He, a novelist. Clearly she’s a novelist too! Note that I tracked down his novels without her (translated ones available in English at the L.A. Public Library), and they’re not half as good as the Beck series – sort of Kafka-esque political fantasies – good, but not great. A librarian told me that Sjöwall and Wahlöö plotted the Beck series together, then split up chapters and each of them wrote separately, alternately generating draft chapters, often while on vacation with their kids.

The books are critical of Swedish society. The authors are fairly negative about a lof of things: urban redevelopment, governmental bureaucracy, pollution, noise, traffic, health care (in the form of Beck’s mother’s bleak old folks’ home), and more. Some accounts, for example the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö Wikipedia’s article,  mention how Sjöwall and Wahlöö were socialists and how the books are indeed a socialist critique.

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The tired heroes

20 March 2011

The Martin Beck Series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, image from Fleur Fisher blog

I’ve had some sort of cold or flu for a couple days and it’s raining cats and dogs all day, so it’s a perfect setting for reading my way though the Martin Beck series of Swedish police procedural novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

(Beck more often than not has a cold; the weather more often than not is dismal.)

I already wrote about these just over a week ago here – with a longish excerpt from the third book The Man on the Balcony.

Even though I am going to rave about some of the later books momentarily, I really recommend starting with the first, Roseanna, and working one’s way through the full ten books in order. The characters lives develop over the arc of the series. Martin Beck goes from not getting along with his wife, to separating, to divorce. They each read well as a stand-alone detective novel… but there’s a great progression when they’re read together.

When I initially read the series I started with two that I’d found at local used bookstore: The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, then The Abominable Man. The book that really hooked me was The Abominable Man, seventh in the series. I re-read it today.

I think it’s actually the shortest internal-duration book in the series; ie: the whole story takes place in the course of less than two days. In the other books, it often takes the police weeks and months to track things down.

“But many years of experience had taught him [Beck] that most of his work was in fact pointless, and that even the things provided results in the long run almost always looked pointless to begin with.”

The pace of The Abombinable Man is great. It whipsaws from a tense action-standoff (that I don’t want to give too much away on – but it’s great!), to a domestic scene (which informs the standoff – makes the standoff make sense), and back to standoff. This weaving and pace is so skillful that it rivets the reader, building anticipation… a page-turner! (more…)

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Great Martin Beck Series

10 March 2011

In the stress of work for the upcoming April 10th 2011 CicLAvia event, I’ve been looking for something easy to read – the literary equivalent of comfort food. So I’ve starting to re-read the series of ten Martin Beck police novels, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. These are a slightly different genre than other P. D. James and Dorothy L. Sayers mystery novels that I sometimes enjoy. The Beck series are police procedurals. It’s less guessing whodunnit, and more watching the police do the research and legwork that it takes to solve a crime.

My mother, who was an exchange student in Stockholm, Sweden, read these back in the 1970’s. She connected with the descriptions of Swedish places,  and I can still remember her enjoying them a lot then. I didn’t pick them up until, I think mid-2009… at which point, I a) read them out of order and b) gobbled all ten of them up in about a month and a half  – which included tracking down copies of the last two which were then out-of-print. A couple of weeks ago I started re-reading them, in order.

They’re worthwhile, though not incredibly deep. They have great pace, laugh-out-loud humor, and a wonderful dash of politics… and moments of brilliance.

I like the character Martin Beck. He’s a bit plodding, often has a cold, not getting along well with his wife… but he’s observant, thoughtful, hard-working, respectful, and has a strong moral compass – a good sense for justice. He’s a kind of somewhat quiet everyman hero. Beck is only one of a team of policemen, detectives I would call them (though Beck rises above  that rank, becoming the superintendent.) 

The detective whom I like best, and whom I identify with most, is Lennart Kollberg. He’s a bit overweight, loves eating and sex (reviews call him a sensualist), strongly dislikes guns, gets frustrated by overzealous people in positions of authority… well, that last one is something that Sjöwall and Wahlöö must really believe in, because it comes up a lot.

Swedish cover for The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

This week I read one of my favorite passages, which stars Kollberg. I am on the third book now – The Man on the Balcony. It’s the story of the solving of a series of gruesome child rape-murders. Kollberg has the daunting task of notifying a woman whose daughter has been killed.

Kollberg felt slightly sick at the thought of the task ahead of him. It was disagreeable at least. He had been forced into similar tasks before, but now, in the case of a child, the ordeal was worse than ever. If only Martin had been here, he thought; he’s much better at this sort of thing than I am. Then he remember how depressed Martin Beck had always seemed in situations like this, and followed up the train of thought: hah, it’s just as hard for everyone, whoever has to do it.

The apartment house where the dead girl had lived was obliquely opposite Vanadis Park, in the block between Surbrunnsgatan and Frejgatan. The elevator was out of order and he had to walk up the five flights. He stood still for a moment and got his breath before ringing the doorbell.

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