The One with the Swedish Anonymous Killer

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

It was only one month ago that I finished reading #8 in the series and that I resolved to be more intentional if I wanted to complete the whole series. And I do want it very much! (all the more as the last series I’d completed was not a huge success, in a whole other genre). But within a few weeks, what a change of tone! The book I read in March was a lot of fun with literally LOL moments, this one is chilling and rather stark.

The book starts with a daily, ordinary scene in Stockholm. While people go about their daily business and kids go out to school or to the park, a man just looks down at the street from his balcony. Nothing more. But as we know we’re reading a police investigation, we just wonder where the blow will come from and expect the worse from any ordinary character.

And so we should. In this rather short book, Beck and his colleagues are confronted with a senseless murder and no clues whatsoever. Someone has attacked, raped and murdered a little girl in a park, and nothing can point to the murderer. The police are clueless and can only resort to the feeblest attempts by rounding up the usual suspects, by making more rounds in the various parks of the city, but they’re really looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The worst is that police can only secretly hope that there will be another murder to find more clues. Martin Beck’s colleagues, who seemed so stupid and grotesque in the book I read before (and which is a later installment of the series), are now tragic figures who are all too aware of their powerlessness. They sift through telephone calls in search for the tiniest clue, and we witness how ungrateful this effort is and how little it yields. Just like Roseanna which I read many years ago, the resolution will come by a combination of sheer luck and good memory. Which is not very comforting.

This book, which is rather early in the series, is less politically-heavy handed than the later ones and it was nice. The authors clearly want to denounce the Swedish society from the 1960s where people live in anonymous large buildings without knowing, or caring for their neighbors, and where petty crime is growing. But to me people in this book, besides the tension created by the plot itself, seemed rather carefree and reasonably content. Is it the Swedish character? I’m not sure, but I look forward to reading the rest of the remaining books.

The One with the Feminist Radical Humor

Nicole-Lise Bernheim, Mersonne ne m’aime (French, 1978)

I have wondered if I should mention this book in this blog, and if so, how. It is not that this book presents anything remotely shameful, on the contrary. But it is completely, fully untranslatable, and if I attempt to explain how funny it is, I will get lost in a flurry of explanations that will be completely un-funny. This book is quintessentially French, and will surely never be translated into English. Anyway, here am I.

This book found its way into my husband’s hands in mysterious ways, as he has very eclectic reading tastes. He then had a good laugh and put it on my nightstand as soon as he’d finished it. It reminds me of another great parody mystery set in the 1970s, The seventh function of language by Laurent Binet, but the difference is that Binet’s book was published in 2015, while this one was published in the late 1970s. Far from being nostalgic, it really speaks of contemporary trends and characters and makes fun of them. I don’t think it was a huge bestseller at the time and now only few copies are still to be found.

Set in Paris in the 1970s, it is a feminist humorous sketch, in a domain that often takes itself very, very seriously. It portrays famous feminist figures and organizations, and it makes fun of it with endless puns and silly situations. Simone de Beauvoir is here renamed Brigitte de Savoir (meaning “knowledge”), the structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault makes a cameo as Foulcan (Get-the-F-out), etc. Even more sacrilegious, the book starts with the murder of said Brigitte de Savoir, whose lifeless body is discovered by a lowly female traffic warden who wanted to issue a ticket on her car.

Beyond name dropping of famous 1970s figures that have or have not remained famous nowadays, the book is not so much about a traditional mystery plot but about playing with words. Any word containing a reference to the patriarchy is replaced by a feminine equivalent. As you may know “père” in French means “father”, but “per” is a very common syllable, to be found in “person” for example. The title itself is a transformation from father to mother in the sentence “no per-son loves me”. The reading experience is not very fluid, but it is indeed memorable.

Last week, I listened to a Radiolab podcast episode about Facebook’s “Supreme court” that would give an advice on what is acceptable or not. Humor, especially when it addresses the topic of gender, is often challenged in those instances, because what one person finds funny may not be another person’s tastes. In my opinion, this book is very daring in its humor, but also radically feminist and completely respectful, a rare combination when it comes to sensitive topics.

The One with the Unrecognized Heroines

Svetlana Alexievich, War’s Unwomanly Face (Russian, 1983)

I was curious to read this book because I had heard of Svetlana Alexievich for her Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 and I had no clue what kind of books she had written. I was surprised to find it in the History shelves at my local library, slightly by chance, as I had mistakenly believed that she was writing fiction. How wrong I was! This is a very powerful book of oral history, by hundreds of women who have talked to Svetlana Alexievich and confided to her with their private memories of the war, many of which had never been shared with others before.

The Nobel prize motivation is “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” It is very accurate of my own reading experience, which is quite unlike what I’ve read before. I have read poliphobic books before, but not that big and not that raw. I am claiming this book as read, but to be completely honest, I read a bit more than half the book. These memories are very harrowing and the accumulation makes it even more difficult. I could only read it in short spurts. So much hardship! So much blood and tears!

The thing that made me come back to the book again and again was the feminist vision of war. Women are often seen as civilian victims, but not fighters, and the book shows an often ignored part of the Second world war in the Soviet union: girls and women enlisted and fought next to the men. They were as brave if not braver, having to fight prejudice among their fellow fighters first before getting to the front lines. But the Soviet union was so desperate in its defense against the Nazis that beggars can’t be choosers.

When I saw that the book was originally published in the early 1980s, I was reminded of the kind of Communist literature about wars, that insists on sacrifices for the great motherland, on strong men and women fighting the ennemy side by side. But this book goes well beyond that, as it shines a light on the not-so-glorious behavior of the Soviet men, and never ever glorifies war, even when some women speak strongly of fraternity and courage under fire.

The bitter part of these memories is to see that these courageous, even fearless women were not recognized as such as the end of the war: contrary to their fellow fighters they didn’t get medals but suspicion and distrust instead. They had transgressed some tabu and they were no longer marriage material, even tainting their younger sisters by association. The women who had left kids in the care of family to fight had difficulties to get them back because they were deemed unfit mothers. And countless others preferred to stay silent over their experience of the war when their husbands, male colleagues were flaunting theirs.

I can’t say that you’ll love reading that book, but you won’t forget it anytime soon.

The One with the Traitor’s Turmoil

Patrick Modiano, La Ronde de Nuit (The night watch, 1969)

I’m not sure it was the best decision to read this book so soon after Dora Bruder, which I had totally loved. This one pales in comparison, but really, it’s not bad at all. It is fiction, and it is unsettling because it’s not linear and it’s hard to find your bearing at first. It’s short (150 pages), but the first third of the book is a whirlwind of people and scenes and snippets of conversation, that seem to make no sense at all. I understand that some readers might be put off by this, especially as characters are not of the likeable kind. They are shady characters, thugs, corrupt ex-policemen, prostitutes, con men, and all have a very unpleasant common point: they’re friendly with the Nazi forces occupying France, because they are the real winners of the French debacle. They steal, they live in rich villas whose owners have fled, they do black-market and gorge themselves with high class alcohol or food that aren’t accessible legally. This book is really the mirror view of Dora Bruder, and what it shows is not pretty.

I had indeed chosen this book at the library because it is set in the same historical period (the war is one of the common themes of many of Modiano’s books anyway), but it surprised me to see that it was published in 1969, almost two decades before Dora Bruder. It is very clearly fiction, but as in other Modiano’s works real places in Paris are very important. I learnt in between that this is the second book published by Modiano and that he later worked as co-writer for the movie “Lacombe Lucien”, which has a similar story of a traitor during Second world war.

I have been watching a few classic movies lately about the Second world war: Mr. Klein (1976) by Joseph Losey, about a shady art dealer who is mistaken for a hunted Jew, and L’Armée des ombres (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville, about ordinary French members of the Resistance, and how traitors and doubts were with them every step of the way. Modiano’s book, which is highly atmospheric and almost like a trance, was a good complement to those movies, and I intend to continue with this theme, as I bought Pierre Bayard’s book: Would I have been a résistant or an executioner?

The French title “La Ronde de nuit” has many meanings. The English title chose “The Night watch”, just like the famous Dutch painting by Rembrandt, and it’s true that the thugs that help the Gestapo and hunt Resistance members are mostly active by night, cruising the dark and empty streets of Paris to make suspects “disappear”. (There are haunting scenes in Mr. Klein about this). But “Ronde” in French is also a round dance, like the kind small kids play and sing in the courtyards with nursery rhymes. The first part of the book replicates the whirlwind of a waltz, and the repetitive, obsessive rhythm of a merry-go-round, one that would be anything but childish and innocent. The narrator is like in a nightmare, and the writing is particularly effective, but also dizzying to the reader who is suddenly thrown among dangerous strangers and in shady situations one doesn’t quite understand.

The narrator might be fictional, but among his bleak friends I recognized one name at the end of the book: Léon Sadorski, which I’d discovered in an eponymous noir thriller. Sadorski, for one, was a real corrupt and collaborator police inspector during the war, so it gave me second thoughts about everything I’d thought as fictional in the rest of the book. I normally enjoy when books speak to one another, but this coincidence is rather chilling!

The One with the Swedish Bank Robbery Epidemic

Major Sjöwall and Per Wahloo, The Locked Room (Swedish, 1972)

The last time I read one of these Swedish mysteries was in 2019. In fact, it seems that I need to wait 2 years or more before getting to another one in this series, which is probably not the most efficient way to do it. But who says reading has to be efficient? This leisurely pace really suits me, as my memory gets a bit blurry, but I still feel as if I am meeting old friends again. And as always, I don’t read it in order, as I depend on which volume is available at my local library. This time, I was in the mood for a locked room mystery (having recently watched with the kids The Mystery of the Yellow Room, inspired by the Gaston Leroux novel) and the book was perfect.

If I try to be a bit more systematic with the poor detective inspector Beck who is nothing if not methodical, persistent and logical, I have to conclude that I have read more than half of the books in the series, beginning by Roseanna (1965) and The Man who went up in smoke (1966) read in 2010 (back when I still read books in order, or maybe it was sheer luck), then in 2013 I moved to #4: The Laughing Policeman (1968). Then 4 more years passed before I started again, this time with Cop Killer (1974), which is the penultimate one. Then in 2019 I moved back to the #5 The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969). And now The Locked room (1972) which is #8.

Have I ruined any pretense of being orderly? Is it enough to make your head spin? I’m only missing #3 (because there’s a child killer), #6 and #7 and #10. Mmmh… Which means that I probably shouldn’t count on luck only to help me find the ones I haven’t read yet.

The best thing about this book is that it made me laugh out loud. Yes! (even in Covid year!) I had called these detective stories gloomy, terse, depressing and painstaking. I remembered I loved them, but I didn’t remember how much fun they really were. In this book, the Swedish police force is mobilized against a series of bank robberies. As always with Sjöwall and Wahlöö, there is always a strong social(ist) commentary that condemns the anti-democratic tendencies of the police and how desperate the social and political situation is. But at the same time, those policemen are real clowns! They are both full of themselves and stupid, a combination that ensures that they are always too slow to catch the robbers. There’s a scene of pure slapsticks where a whole policemen squad ends up injured and almost dead in an empty flat, by a combination of ineptitude and bad luck.

On the other hand, Martin Beck is patient and perceptive. He has survived an almost fatal injury (which I don’t know much about as I haven’t read the previous book), and as he’s returning to his job, he’s given an obscure case to get back on his feet. An old man found dead, shot by a gun, in a locked flat, with doors and windows all closed. No gun on the premises, but by the fault of policemen’s ineptitude, it was first ruled as a suicide. Beck is the opposite of all his colleagues. He doesn’t jump on conclusions, he doesn’t hurry to arrest anyone, he’s polite and patient. The ending of the book really questions what is real justice.

Also, as I had remembered how Beck was stuck in an unhappy marriage, it made me really happy that he seemed to find a nice girlfriend. Don’t you see how I feel Beck was an old friend I was seeing from time to time? I really wish his new relationship will work out. Well, we’ll see, probably in a year or two…

The One with the Oyster Attraction

Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School (1954)

Last time I wrote about choosing a book for all the wrong reasons (well, not exactly wrong, but shallow at best), and today I want to tell about this weird investigation that Maigret chooses for all the shallowest reasons. It is spring in Paris (a timely book if any!), the temperatures are up, the birds are chirping, and Maigret wants to take some fresh air. He stops on his way to the police quarters to have a drink, and when he comes back, a weird guy waits for him in the waiting area. A poor guy who has run from home in rural France, taken the last train to Paris, not slept a wink the whole night in order to appeal to the famous Commissaire Maigret: only Maigret would save him, because all the villagers are convinced that he committed a murder and the local police won’t listen to him.

In truth Maigret doesn’t really care for the man, who isn’t really convincing or fascinating, but the suspicious death of a retired postmistress is set in a small village near the sea, and because Maigret remembers he had excellent oysters and white wine there, he takes a few days off to look into the case. When he arrives on site, he learns that the postmistress was universally hated because she was a gossip and a blackmailer, but that the local community hates even more the teacher who has arrived from Paris in disgrace and doesn’t fit into this village of wine merchants, farmers and tradesmen.

I tend to prefer Maigret stories set in Paris, but Simenon is also very good when describing tight-knit villages and the boredom and gossip there. I really enjoyed the slow methods of Maigret, and the care he takes to interrogate the kids who were in class at the time of the murder. The teacher got out for some admin duties just then and the kids were doing anything but studying, including looking outside… but there are as many lies as witness accounts.

As a 2021 reader I was rather shocked by the amount of alcohol that is consumed almost on every page. From morning till night, every time someone has to tell Maigret any secret, they do it sharing a glass of wine, a shot of strong spirit or even some alcohol-laced coffee. I’m just surprised that Maigret can discover the truth and not get to bed with a massive hungover. There’s a running joke about those coveted oysters and white wine that decided Maigret to take up the case: because of neap tide, he won’t even have any for the whole duration of the investigation!

The One with the Disappeared Girl’s Secrets

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (French 1997, English 1999)

It’s not the first Modiano I get to read, but I can safely say that it’s the best one (so far?). I’m glad that I started with some other of his books to get used to his very peculiar writing style, the slowness, the melancholy, the meandering, repetitive walks through Paris. All these elements are present in Dora Bruder, but they take it to a higher level and take a whole new meaning.

Other books were more clearly fictions, interwoven with the narrator’s voice which may – or may not be – Modiano’s himself. So whenever we readers were made to walk through Paris and reflect about the past of a particular address, it sometimes felt artificial, as the whole genealogy of a building, or the anecdotes about a street or a neighborhood in Paris might all be fictional. But in Dora Bruder, Modiano is looking for a real young girl who lived in Paris. And his quest for information all across town, so difficult and fragmented, fully justifies the meandering and repetitive pace of the book.

Modiano discovers Dora Bruder while reading an old newspaper from 1941. Dora Bruder’s parents have put a classified ad in the newspaper to inquire about their daughter’s disappearance. She is 15 (as described in the ad) and Jewish (which is not apparent). Dora is totally unknown to Modiano but his curiosity is awakened and he investigates. He sees parallels between Dora’s life and his own father’s, who also survived as a Jew in Paris by hiding and doing illegal activities. Dora’s parents, both from Eastern Europe, live in a room in a poor Paris neighborhood and work small jobs. They are not in hiding and must wear the infamous yellow star. They have sent their daughter to a Catholic boarding school, but Dora runs away several times (which is when her desperate parents put the ad), and at one point, she is arrested by the police who will identify her as Jewish and send her to the Nazi camps where she is killed, in Auschwitz in 1942.

Modiano is on a quest to know all there is to know about Dora’s life (which is not much), and he also wonders about what she saw and felt, if only by citing how cold or rainy one particular day was, but she remains a ghost. He doesn’t put words in her mouth and doesn’t speculate about psychological reasons why she ran away. It is a mix between a biography and an autobiography, as he tells us about his emotions during his investigations and his memories linked to his childhood in the 1960s and his father.

It is a richly layered book set on bare-bones facts (what could be smaller than a few lines of a classified ad in a newspaper?), and it can move you to tears with melancholy and tragedy. It’s not surprising that this book has been assigned to all high-school students in France. They must write essays about it and some even have exams on it, but I hope they can still perceive the full emotional and historical value of this wonderful book.

The One with the Twin Brothers in the Fishing Village

Georges Simenon, Les Rescapés du Télémaque (1938)

During the first lock-down, libraries and bookshops were completely shut-down, and even Amazon was limiting the shippings, so I was really stressed-out to have nothing left to read. Well, yes! I’m fully aware that it was completely irrational, given our very full bookshelves, but as other people were hoarding TP and pasta, I was indeed hoarding books.

And while I was hoarding, some people were Kondo-weeding their own bookshelves, resulting in many books ending up in the trash (in the worse option) or in little free libraries (in the best option). I found this book in a cardboard box that was left outside in our compound. The box remained for a few (dry) days, then after the next rain showers, I guess someone threw the rest out into the bins.

This novel does not feature Maigret, and yet there is a murder, and an investigation. But it’s the weirdest investigation, as the one who’s leading it is the most unqualified sleuth ever. A rich old man has been murdered in his mansion in Fécamp, a small fishing village in Normandy. The main suspect is Pierre, the captain of a fishing boat, who is currently away at sea. As soon as his boat gets into the harbor, he is arrested, to the whole village’s outcry, as the young man is well-loved by everyone. Well-loved indeed, but would he be able to kill a man, who has probably killed his own father decades ago? People are not so sure anymore.

Now there’s this part where readers with a vivid visual imagination might want to SKIP THE NEXT FEW LINES (sorry for yelling!). The murder mystery hides another mystery that happened 20 years before: the shipwreck of the Telemaque, whose survivors finally resorted to… eating one of their dead mates, namely Pierre’s father. This story remains in the back of the whole book and shows how this tragedy has long-lasting impacts on the next generation.

Charles is Pierre’s twin brother, but they are polar opposite. Pierre is charming, but he’s not good at school. Charles is shy and awkward, and he has taken Pierre’s naval written exams for him. Pierre is strong and healthy, Charles is weak and has TB. Pierre works at sea, while Charles is an employee of the railroads. Charles is always in his brother’s shadow, but for once he has to step forward and lead his own investigation to clear his brother’s name.

Charles has no idea where to start. He is literally the slowest investigator ever, because he has never really reflected on his situation. He has always taken life as it is, people and events at face value, including his own brother, and never analyzed what people thought of him, of his family, or how people may lie to him. It’s a slow awakening, and I really enjoyed this portrait of a complex brotherly relationship.

It’s not, by far, the most well-know or best-written Simenon ever, and it’s really on the slow side, but the portrait of the characters and of the small fishing village was quite fascinating. Once again Simenon proves to be such a good writer of heavy atmosphere and characters. It also got me interested in this coastal region of Normandy and… drumrolls please… we will go there in February if all is well! I will tell you if I can see where the events take place and if the village still retains this particular atmosphere!

The One with the Pre-War Ennui

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians (1930)

Of course I knew of Vita Sackville-West, because of her romantic relationship with Virginia Woolf. I had read about her, her wealth and eccentricity (in a French sort of biography), I had watched the movie Vita and Virginia (I appreciated the aesthetics but didn’t really enjoy the movie), but somehow I hadn’t read her best-selling novel. My own blog reminds me that I have indeed read a novella / short story of hers: The death of Noble Godavary, a decade ago (!) but it has hardly marked my memory. I expected something in the vein of Nancy Mitford or in Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for a wedding. There was wit indeed, and some piercing views of the British upper class made me laugh out loud: “Lucy laughed her silvery laugh, the laugh that had made several men believe that she understood what they said.

The Edwardians is the portait of a young charming duke, Sebastian, who will one day inherit a large fortune and a large estate, and who is weighted down by the traditions and the hypocrisy of the British upper class. He has been brought up to conform, but he despises the people he has to mingle with. He is torn between his sincere love for his estate and his clarity for the emptiness and meaninglessness of the aristocracy. It has clearly the ambition to portrait a whole generation and to allude to particular scandalous cases, as the writer warns that “no character in this book is wholly fictitious“.

As readers (of no particular wealth), we are, like Sebastian, both fascinated by these grand estate à la Downton Abbey, with countless staff and weekly lavish parties for dozen of guests, and repulsed by loveless marriages, dating schemes, serial lovers and vapid conversations. But what got to me most in the book is the feeling of nostalgia for a world that is doomed. Sebastian is bored and forlorn, but Sackville-West and us readers all know what lay ahead for him. I will not disclose the plot ending, but the book ends with the coronation of King George in 1910, just a few years before the start of World War 1. If not for this bitter-sweet feeling, Sebastian, with all his privilege, self-centeredness and lack of understanding for the way real people live, would have been insufferable.

In a sense, my reading of this novel was marked by the one huge book I read this year, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Brittains was not an aristocrat, she belonged to the upper-middle class, and her view of the Edwardian era was so rosy. Sebastian’s world is very far from Brittain’s, and Sebastian’s sister Viola (probably modelled on Vita herself?) would probably have been envious of Vera’s education and sense of freedom. I enjoyed the novel but I preferred Vera’s firm grasp on the realities and her courageous choices.

The One with the Unflappable Granny

Dorothy Gilman, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966)

Danielle sent me this book last year and I’m so grateful: it is a present that keeps on giving! From the back cover I knew that this mystery / spying / adventure book was right up my alley, so I decided to save it for when the season would turn dark and cold and gloomy, and boy did I not know at the time what 2020 had in store for us…

Mrs. Pollifax is a very respectable widow from New Jersey. Now that her husband is dead and her children grown-up, she finds herself a little bored. Or completely suicidal, depending on how you see it. So she boards a train to Washington, as one does, and knocks on the door of the CIA to politely ask for a job. Of course.

After a funny mixup, she gets a mission that looks easy enough: to pose as a tourist in Mexico and retrieve a book from one particular bookshop on a particular day. But of course, nothing comes as easy as it’s supposed to be, and soon Mrs. Pollifax is abducted by evil forces.

I enjoy James Bond very much, but Mrs. Pollifax is a strong contender. Throw her in a dangerous prison in a faraway land with armed guards and she will make them sing and redecorate the place. She might be the daughter of Mary Poppins and the aunt of McGyver too, as her handbag is always full of random stuff that will help save the day.

This is a 1966 book, so the bad guys are the Reds (Russians and Chinese) and the world is both so easy and so complicated. Mrs. Pollifax approaches everyone with a kind of benevolent curiosity and she never, never lets desperate circumstances bring her down. This book is so positive and hopeful without being too coy or too Pollyannaish. I’m not saying that it’s exactly realistic, but it’s an adventure book with a light tone but it doesn’t shy from dangerous situations either.

What would Emily Pollifax do in 2020? Probably cheering everyone up and organizing support for hospital workers. I have been basking in Pollifax afterglow for a few days. How do I plan to get through the 2020-2021 winter? But of course, I need some more Pollifax books!