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.
With all the criticism, I was curious this time around to look for solutions. From Dennis Lehane’s introduction to the July 2010 Vintage Crime edition of the tenth book The Terrorists (released originally in 1975): “So what is the solution? By ending the book – and the series – on the word Marx, Sjöwall and Wahlöö seem to be making their case for communism.”
I don’t disagree, but I’d like to try answering the solution question differently. I think that the character Rhea Nielsen shows us a solution. Nielsen is Beck’s love interest, appearing in the last three books only. When we first meet Beck, he’s not getting along with his wife. Soon thereafter he’s sleeping on the couch, then divorced. In book eight, The Locked Room, he meets Rhea Nielson. She’s 37, Beck is ten years older. She’s a personable landlord and a student, a great cook with a ravenous appetite, a warm and generous soul. Like Lennart Kollberg, she’s a sensualist – loving food and sex. She’s really good for Beck – drawing him out of his shell, and bringing a simple richness to his life.
Here’s a description of their relationship, from The Terrorists:
She [Nielsen] looked happy, and nothing could have made him [Beck] happier. They had had good times since then, full of talk, jealousy, friendly quarrels and, not least, good spells of sex, trust and companionship. Although he was over fifty and thought he had experienced most things, he had still opened up with her. Hopefully, she shared his feelings about the relationship, but on that point he was more uncertain. She was physically stronger and the more free-thinking of the two of them, presumably also more intelligent, anyhow quicker-thinking. She had plenty of bad points, among others that she was often cross and irritable, but he loved them. Perhaps that expression was stupid or far too romantic, but he could find no better one.
He looked at her and became aware that he had stopped being jealous. Her large nipples were thrusting out beneath the material, her shirt was carelessly buttoned, she had taken off her sandals and was rubbing her naked feet against each other under the table. Now and again she bent down and scratched her ankles. But she was herself and not his; perhaps this was the best thing about her.
Here’s my favorite contrast, that shows some of Neilsen’s uncommon common sense. In the beginning of The Locked Room, Beck is speaking with Detective Seargent Gustavsson, a crime investigation officer, questioning him on an investigation that Gustavsson has done poorly:
[Gustavsson] “Oh that,” he said. “Well I don’t understand it at all. But I assume things like that do happen.”
[Beck] “What things?”
[Gustavsson] “Inexplicable things, puzzles to which there’s quite simply no solution. So one sees at once one might as well give up.”
In contrast, here’s a phone conversation between Nielsen and Beck, near the beginning of the ninth book, Cop Killer:
[Nielsen] “How’s it going?”
[Beck] “I don’t know for sure. There’s a woman who’s disappeared.”
[Nielsen] “People can’t disappear. You ought to know that, you’re a detective.”
[Beck] “I think I love you.”
[Nielsen] “I know you do,” she said happily.
I think it’s a great contrast.
Nielsen is confident, forthright, and direct. She says “you should say what you think” – like the truth-telling child in the Emperor’s New Clothes. When she first meets Beck (in The Locked Room) she states “Can’t we talk a little more relaxed? … Formal talk is hopeless. I loathe it.” Beck is used to asking prying questions of suspects, but soon realizes that he doesn’t need to put questions to Nielsen – that she’s giving him thoughtful interactive information, call it intelligence (in the best senses), on what he’s looking for.
She lives in an apartment building that she’s inherited. Beck initially goes there to investigate a former tennant of hers. It’s in an inner-city neighborhood, and Beck is a bit surprised that a landlord would live there. From Cop Killer: “Her building in Stockholm was quite different from the ordinary average apartment house. You might almost call it a commune, though with none of the negative connotations…” Here are Rhea Nielsen’s words describing her so-called commune, from The Locked Room:
“I inherited this dump, as I’ve said before. Actually it’s a good building, but when I inherited it and moved in it was a bloody rat hole. My dad certainly hadn’t changed a light bulb or paid to have a broken window mended in ten years. He lived miles away from here and was only interested in collecting the rents and kicking out tennants who couldn’t pay on time. Then he divided the apartments up into bed spaces and rented them out at swinishly high prices to foreigners and others who had no choice. They’ve got to live somewhere too, haven’t they? In almost all these old houses it’s the same story.”
Rhea Nielsen’s door is unlocked when she’s home, neighbors drop by and borrow, share meals and wine. Her whole set-up feels a bit like an informal version of the urban intentional community where I live: Los Angeles Eco-Village.
So… in terms of Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s solutions for ailing societies, I think that Rhea Nielsen and her level-headed commune present a worthwhile solution. We should live in our cities – close to people, help fix things up a bit… and should be frank and forthright with each other. It’s not necessarily a prescription for broad-scale national political agendas, but a small, quiet solution that we can each embrace in our hearts.