Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Great Martin Beck Series

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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.

The woman opened the door almost at once. She was dressed in a brown cotton housecoat and sandals. Her fair hair was tousled, as if she had been pushing her fingers through it over and over again. When she saw Kollberg her face fell with disappointment, then her expression hovered between hope and fear.

Kollberg showed his identity card and she gave him a desperate, inquiring look.

“May I come in?”

The woman opened the door wide and stepped back.

“Haven’t you found her?” she said.

Kollberg walked in without answering. The apartment seemed to consist of two rooms. The outer one contained a bed, bookshelves, desk, TV set, chest of drawers and two armchairs, one on each side of a low teak table. The bed was made, presumably no one had slept in it that night. On the blue bedspread was a suitcase, open, and beside it lay piles of neatly folded clothes. A couple of newly ironed cotton dresses hung over the lid of the suitcase. The door of the inner room was open; Kollberg caught sight of a blue-painted bookshelf with books and toys. On top sat a white teddy bear.

“Do you mind if we sit down?” Kollberg asked, and sat in one of the armchairs.

The woman remained standing and said:

“What has happened? Have you found her?”

Kollberg saw the dread and panic in her eyes and tried to keep quite calm.

“Yes” he said. “Please sit down, Mrs. Carlsson. Where is your husband?”

She sat in the armchair opposite Kollberg.

“I have no husband. We’re divorced. Where’s Eva? What has happened?”

“Mrs. Carlsson, I’m terribly sorry to tell you this. Your daughter is dead.”

The woman stared at him.

“No,” she said. “No.”

Kollberg got up and went over to her.

“Have you no one who can be with you? Your parents?”

The woman shook her head.

“It’s not true,” she said.

Kollberg put his hand on her shoulder.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Carlsson,” he said lamely.

“But how? We were going to the country…”

“We’re not sure yet,” Kollberg replied. “We think that she … that she’s been the victim of …”

“Killed? Murdered?”

Kollberg nodded.

The woman shut her eyes and sat stiff and still. Then she opened her eyes and shook her head.

“Not Eva,” she said. “It’s not Eva. You haven’t … you’ve made a mistake.”

“No,” Kollberg said. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Mrs. Carlsson. Isn’t there anyone I can call up? Someone I can ask to come here? Your parents or someone?”

“No, no, not them. I don’t want anyone here.”

“Your ex-husband?”

“He’s living in Malmö, I think.”

Her face was ashen and her eyes were hollow. Kollberg saw that she had not yet grasped what had happened, that she had put up a mental barrier which would not allow the truth past it. He had seen the same reaction before and knew that when she could no longer resist, she would collapse.

“Who is your doctor, Mrs. Carlsson?” Kollberg asked.

“Doctor Ström. We were there on Wednesday. Eva had had a tummy ache for several days and we were going to the country I thought I’d better …”

She broke off and looked at the doorway into the other room.

“Eva’s never sick as a rule. And she soon got over this tummy ache. The doctor thought it was a touch of the gastric influenza.”

She sat silent for a moment. Then she said, so softly that Kollberg could hardly catch the words:

“She’s all right again now.”

Kollberg looked at her, feeling desperate and idiotic. He did not know what to say or do. She was sitting with her face turned towards the open door into her daughter’s room. He was trying frantically to think of something to say when she suddenly got up and called her daughter’s name in a loud, shrill voice. Then she ran into the other room. Kollberg followed her.

The room was bright and nicely furnished. In one corner stood a red-painted box full of toys and at the foot of the narrow bed was an old-fashioned dollhouse. A pile of schoolbooks lay on the desk.

The woman was sitting on the edge of the bed, her elbows propped on her knees and face buried in her hands. She rocked to and fro and Kollberg could not hear whether she was crying or not.

He looked at her for a moment, then went out into the hall where he had seen the telephone. An address book lay beside it and in it, sure enough, he found Doctor Ström’s number.

The doctor listened while Kollberg explained the situation and promised to come within five minutes.

Kollberg went back to the woman, who was sitting as he had left her. She was making no sound. He sat down beside her and waited. At first he wondered whether he dared touch her, but after a while he put his arm cautiously around her shoulders. She seemed unaware of his presence.

They sat like this until the silence was broken by the doctor’s ring at the door.

Translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair. If you want to start reading the Beck series, I recommend starting with the first one Roseanna.

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One Response to “Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Great Martin Beck Series”

  1. Joe Linton Says:

    I ended up writing three blog posts about the Martin Beck series. This is the first; here are links to the second and third:

    The tired heroes

    And there was someone waiting for him

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