The tired heroes


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!

This book I think showcases Martin Beck at his most heroic. He’s definitely the moral conscience at the center of the story. Here’s a passage that sums up some of this (I’ve omitted the culprit’s name – which wouldn’t be a huge spoiler, but just as well not reveal it, and let you the reader experience the book as I have) :

The only one who wasn’t thinking much about tear-gas bombs and helicopters, water cannon and walkie-talkies was Martin Beck.

He was standing quietly in a corner, and not just because of his usual claustrophobia and aversion to crowds. He was thinking about [culprit name] and the circumstances that had driven the man into the absurd and desparate situation in which he now obviously found himself. It was possible that [name]‘s mind was now completely in eclipse, that he was beyond communication and human contact, but it wasn’t certain. Someone was responsible for all this. Not Nyman [the titular abominable man] because he had never understood what responsibility for human beings actually meant, or even that such an idea existed. Not Malm [the national police head – more on him below] of course, for whom [name] was quite simply a dangerous madman … with no other connection to the police than that it was their job, one way or another to put him out of action.

And Martin Beck felt something growing stronger and stronger in his mind. A sense of guilt, a guilt he might actively have to come to terms with.

A few notes on some fairly-minor recurring themes I’ve been enjoying throughout these books:

Anti-Authority Bias (coupled with great respect for work done on-the-ground): I think that  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö must have had a very strong bias against authority figures – people in positions of official power. Various higher-ups are exceedingly overconfident in the certainty of their questionable tactics succeeding. In The Abominable Man, when the police head-honcho Malm (a political appointee with no actual police experience) states:

“We’re going to do this the way I say … I don’t want any more risky schemes and personal heroics. These boys have been trained for situations like this. We know they’ve got a ninety-percent chance of succeeding. And the prospects of at least one of them making it completely uninjured are just about one hundred percent. So no more amateurish objections. Understood?”

The reader can be sure that the tactics that Malm has outline will end in tragic failure. They do.

This runs throughout the books. It’s even more pronounced (and really funny) in The Locked Room when Beck’s men serve on Bulldozer Olsson’s National Police Board special squad to investigate bank robberies.

The converse is that seemingly-pointless research that I quoted above. Beck and his men demonstrate that success comes from a lot of investigation, on-the-ground experience, thorough follow-up, and the like.

Critiqueing Misguided Redevelopment: I’ve been enjoying Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s commentary on misguided 1970’s era redevelopment, which seeps in around the edges of a lot of the books. The city of Stockholm is tearing down nice old stuff, and putting up shoddy, car-centric crap in its place. Here’s one mention, almost entirely gratuituous , where the police are discussing staging in a vacant area:

“Where the old gasholder was,” said Kollberg

“Right. They tore it down. They’re going to build a cloverleaf [freeway intersection].”

Kollberg sighed. The old brick gasholder had been a unique piece of architecture, and a few people with foresight had mounted a campaign to save it. Unsuccessfully, of course. Could anything be more important than a cloverleaf?

This theme slips in, more seriously in some of the the motivations that cause the culprit to snap in The Abominable Man:

[Police] “Couldn’t he pay his rent?”

[Interviewee] “No. And now they’re going to evict him, he said. With rents so high it’s a wonder people can afford to live anyplace.”

“Where does he live?”

“On Dalagatan. In a brand-new building. He couldn’t find anything else when they tore down the place he was living before. …”

It’s an interesting critique of the “socialist” state in Sweden. In theory, the state is improving things… but in a sort of well-intentioned, but blind clumsy destructive way is making things worse.

[Edited March 28 2011 – I moved a quote that I had here to the third Martin Beck essay I just posted.]

(And, in between the books I’ve covered here and the ones I wrote about earlier are The Laughing Policeman, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, and Murder at the Savoy – all great books, too.)

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