Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, The Terrorists (1975)

And so it comes to an end… I wanted to complete it before the end of 2021 and so I did. Still, there’s something bittersweet to know that there won’t be another Martin Beck book after this one. It took me 11 years, one more than it took to t Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to write it (and yes, I know now how to write their names without hesitation!) The characters grew on me, as they have grown on each other. I missed Lennart Kollberg in this book probably as much as Martin Beck (he retired, disgusted by the police as an institution). I loved seeing Rhea Nielsen and her relationship to Martin Beck blossom. Martin Beck says in this book that he’d needed 5 years to get to know Gunvald Larsson and 5 years to understand how he things, and that maybe they would be friends in another 5 years – and I do feel the same. Gunvald Larsson felt like an insufferable prick in previous episodes, and this one shows how brave and dedicated he actually is.

The main thesis (not even thinly veiled here) is that Sweden is in a state of moral decadence, that capitalism has created violence, greed, promoted incompetence and destroyed the sense of community. Of course, the 1970s were a dark decade. Indeed morale was low after the idealistic communist-utopia-fueled youth riots of the late 1960s. But were they as bad? (Ahem, I feel that it actually got much worse in the 1980s). Were Sjöwall and Wahlöö right to judge their country so harshly at that point of history? I can’t tell, but here in Europe Sweden has always been envied for its social-democrat, egalitarian and caring social system. Scandinavian countries are supposed to be fairer, moderate and more reasonable than southern states, and the plot of this book (as the rest of the series, and many Scandi-noir novels after that) is in stark contradiction with this image. Perhaps it’s because of the high expectation and the subsequent disillusion that the authors are so melancholy at the end of the book. It famously ends with the sentence “X like Karl Marx” (My translation from the French version). But when you know the state of the USSR in the 1970s…

I could write several posts about the story itself. There are a major plot involving terrorists (not the communist-inspired of the 1970s, but more like ultra-reactionary mercenaries sent across the globe to spark unrest and kill blindly – contrary to our modern Isis and Bataclan killers they strike terror by being ultra efficient and also totally devoid of ideology or religion), and two subplots highlighting how Swedish institutions fail the weak and the young. Contrary to normal procedurals, a lot of the book is spent preparing and trying to foil a future terrorists attack, and things don’t turn as expected. I kind of regret reading the book out of order, because to me this novel seems the logic continuation of #8 The Abominable Man, but #9 Cop Killer is a bit fuzzy in my mind. Time for a re-read perhaps?

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Abominable Man (1971)

Although this one is #7 in the series (of 10), this is my penultimate book (as I didn’t read it in order, but in function of what was at the library). Strangely enough, the library doesn’t have the whole series, and they might have been scared by such an abominable title. (or by the book cover). Another version would be that it was so good that a reader stole the library copy. Whatever the version I choose, I’m glad I have bought this copy, because it’s quite memorable.

The Abominable Man (in Swedish version The repulsive man from Saffle) is not the killer. It’s actually the victim. A man is killed with a bayonet as he lies defenseless in a hospital bed. He was a high-ranking policeman and a former soldier. But don’t cry for him just yet. As Martin Beck and his team investigate, they discover that this man was the epitome of police brutality. By his negligence, prejudices, direct or indirect actions, he’s responsible for the death of several innocent people and the harassment and unfair indictment of countless others. In short, he won’t be missed much and it’s rather difficult to narrow down a list of suspects. To make it even more relevant to some recent cases in the media, a lot of people among the police force were aware of his cruelty and abuses, and they all kept silent.

Contrary to several books of the series, where the crime is rather banal and the investigation is long and tedious, this book is flashy and cinematic. The killer with the bayonet will not stop just with one victim, his despair and hatred have turned against the whole police force and he’s not afraid to die. It’s a tragedy of epic dimensions, and the humor of the previous volumes is scarce. The denunciation of the systemic corruption of capitalist (patriarchy, conservative, insert any of the more current vocabulary) Swedish society gets more obvious, but never at the cost of forgetting the human dimension. That’s why Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books are still so relevant today.

The book is so full of tension, it’s hard to stop reading, especially the last quarter of the book. There’s a rampage of violence, with a single man on one hand, and the entire Swedish armed forces on the other hand. The cliff-hanger is absolutely nail-biting, but I spoiled it a bit for myself by having read book #8 before. Don’t make the same mistake!

In a twisted way, it reminded me of a classic 1975 French movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peur sur la ville (The Night Caller in UK/US), where the whole of the police force is hunting a cunning killer throughout a dehumanized landscape of modern towers, but in many important ways the movie and this book are polar opposites. In the movie, no soul-searching about the systemic violence of the police, no social criticism, but instead a not-so-subtle manly man demonstration of force to protect weak single women from evil killers who certainly aren’t worth a fair trial, and barely the bullet of the good detective’s gun. Unless you’re interested in cultural movie history, don’t bother watching this dud, but I guess the relentless movie music by Enio Morricone would be the perfect soundtrack for the Sjöwall & Wahlöö book.

We’re now in December, and only one last book left in the series to complete! I can’t wait!

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

And so, to make things a bit more interesting, I decided to complete the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö novels by the end of 2021. Because it feels great to check some goals off and, quite frankly, this one seems a lot more reachable than others I had in my 2021 list (hello, mastering basic Korean verbs! Realistically, you will probably remain as mysterious as you were on Jan. 1)

This book is in the middle of the series (#6 out of 10), and the themes and characters are by now well established. The random violence, the strong of location (here in Malmö), the social injustice, the fastidious and methodical investigation, the mistakes and length of the search for clues. There are as in some other books an element of comic, slapsticks even, as stupid policemen get bogged down by procedure. The original title of the book refers, if I understand well, to a common insult against Swedish policemen who are compared with potatoes. This comes up a few times in the novel and contrast with the upper class delicacies that hotel guests eat at the Savoy, including Martin Beck himself.

American readers may be surprised how Swedes seem to take a relaxed approach to sex. The victim’s young and beautiful widow enjoys summer sun in the nude (with her lover), and finds nothing embarrassing when the inspector arrives to ask questions, and Beck has sex with a young colleague, but no strings attached. I can’t say if it’s Sweden, 1969, or if Sjöwall and Wahlöö meant something political by it.

Just as in Roseanna, luck and unluck play a part in the investigation, but in the end, Beck is more depressed than satisfied by having brought a criminal to justice. Compared with my last read of them, The man on the balcony, this one is a lot less tense, one might even say hysterical, as the crime itself is less showy, and we feel that nobody really feels sorry for the victim. But the book is still a solid mystery, and I can’t wait for the next one, which I already downloaded on my Kindle.

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 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 Terse Swedish Procedural

The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Swedish, 1969)

After reading some Maigret in December, I decided that classic noirs and old police procedurals are totally worth returning to at regular intervals. And It was waaay too long since I’d read a Martin Beck police mystery. Fall of 2017, to be exact (thank you, blog archives!).

So as soon as 2019 rolled in, I reconnected with the Swedish police force, and it was as if not a day had passed since I’d left them. Beck is still at odds with his wife (and brother-in-law). Kollberg is still his grumpy old self. Melander is brilliant but boring. Gunvald Larsson is an unlikely hero. And there’s a newbie, a rookie policeman who is hilariously ambitious and clumsy (a dangerous combination).

I had forgotten how funny these books are. I mean, seriously laugh out loud funny, with just a few words for a full effect. People are so real, in their petty concerns, wishing for the weekend, hating the cold weather, bad-mouthing the colleagues… By any standards people are not very expansive and prone to emotional outpours but it delivers a punch. They do have a life beside the office, and in part because of that, and also because life is complicated, investigations often progress at snail pace, which is way more realistic than the 50 minutes open-and-shut cases of SVU and CSI. These books are not for hurried readers who want cheap thrill and twists in each page, but if you’re good with that, it is a real treat.

The fire engine that disappeared is a tongue-in-cheek title, because the story starts with an explosion, that could be arson, or murder, or suicide, or plain accident, and it takes a long time to settle between these possibilities. The fire engine that would have extinguished the fire took a very long time coming (yes, things don’t run as smoothly in Stockholm as the ideal country of hygge would have us think). There actually is a toy fire engine that gets lost in the story too, and this mystery too gets resolved in the end.

The One with the Swedish Regatta

Viveca Sten, Closed Circles (Sandhamn #2; Swedish 2009, English 2016)

This one is a thick (454p) trade paperback offered by Dear Mr. Smithereens on Mother’s Day. Let’s just say that this one is not really a keeper (the book of course! Not the hubby! Darling do keep on getting me new crime novels, I love you!)

This is a Swedish cosy mystery (by which I mean that the level of violence is very light, and at any rate inferior to the level of violence and exasperation that I felt reading it), but technically it might qualify as a police investigation. The victim is a rich lawyer and the next president of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club. The killer has to be one of the many people attending a regatta close to Sandhamn Island. Pick you choice.

Aside from pushing me to check on Sandhamn exquisite holiday homes for the wealthy Swedish (red-painted bungalows! breathtaking seaviews!), this book didn’t work for me (perhaps a photo version would work better). The Swedish reputation for very noir, gritty, scary mysteries is not really upheld here. Viveca Sten is no Camilla Läckberg, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. I mean, I don’t need gory crime scenes at all costs, but it  wasn’t what I expected. It didn’t help that I guessed the killer halfway through. The red herring was so fat it was practically Moby Dick.

I wasn’t expecting a Pulitzer, but the writing itself grated on my nerves. I don’t know if the translator (Laura A. Wideburg) remained true to the original but the sentences are all very short and spare, and no chapter is longer than 3 pages (which explains why there are 90+ of them). It feels like a book made of blog posts, not a true novel.

Well, at least I could add Sandhamn as a new dream destination for summer holidays (given the price tag, it’s just a fantasy), so not all is lost! And given that plenty of Goodreads reviews are 5 stars, you can still give it a try, it’s the perfect season for a regatta…

The One with the Gloomy Swedish Detectives

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, Cop Killer (Swedish 1974)

Part of the fun to decide to read another Martin Beck police investigation is to search through the library shelves and try to remember how exactly both names of the writers are spelled. In my head, they are Maj and Per, which doesn’t exactly help. And you can’t really get help from the librarian if you don’t know how to pronounce them, right?

This one is Martin Beck’s ninth book, and they can be read out of order, but it’s probably best not to start with this one, because one can witness the trajectory of Martin Beck’s mood and beliefs from the beginning in the sixties to this one in the mid-seventies. In short, it’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t get better. Also, it’s better to have read Roseanna before, because one of the suspects of this investigation is a character from the first novel in the series.

If I was dealing with real people and if being gloomy was not part of the gumshoe’s and detective’s cliché image, I would be tempted to suggest a strong dose of Prozac to Beck and his close colleagues. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are part of the tradition that uses the conventions of the police procedural to denounce everything that goes wrong in society: miscarriages of justice, hasty judgments, unregulated use of violence by the police force, but also a country where young people struggle to find a right place, where they don’t find jobs and don’t find meaning in the jobs they may find. A country where press and politicians manipulate the news (has anything changed since?). 1974 is a time when young Swedish people are disenchanted, and except for smoking dope and having long hair, Swedish policemen such as Beck and Kollberg are just as disenchanted as they are. 1974 is the year heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, the year Abba released Waterloo and when lots of bombings by extremists and the economic crisis worried people all over the world. The 1970s were dark and bleak and the book does reflect this mood.

Reading a Maj & Per book is not about big twists and big shockers, it’s about the work and the time policemen put in to find a killer, often without much recognition. Only dogged determination, and a part of chance too. The pace is slow and it takes more than half the book to understand why the book is titled Cop Killer, but I promise, this is all worth it.

The One with the big C in Sweden

Johanna Thydell, I taket lyser stjärnorna (Swedish 2003); In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shining (French 2010)

I continue my investigation of the YA / Middle Grade shelves at the library, and I took this one home because I wanted to try another Scandinavian novel.

Yes, I readily acknowledge that this is very vague. And probably unsatisfactory to you. There was the nice cover art (I’m sort of partial, and I hate to be). There was the glowing blurbs and the fact that the book won a national prize for YA literature in Sweden. There was also the French publisher, Thierry Magnier, that regularly publishes very intriguing YA books.

Yet as I came home and started reading, I had to wonder how come I was spending hours of my limited free time reading about a Swedish 13-year-old middle-school girl whose mother was dying of breast cancer. This is no fun.

No fun to Jenna indeed, who is having all these very normal qualms about boys, BFFs, body changes, curfew, getting invited to parties, possible alcohol drinking, possible kissing and generally growing up and becoming a young woman. All that, while her mother is getting weaker and weaker and spending more and more time in hospitals. Jenna’s mother is a single parent, which means that Jenna’s grandparents come over and start taking care of her, which is all the more difficult for her to accept.

Despite the difficult subject (things don’t magically go better, this is no spoiler), Thydell has managed to hook me and I read the whole book in a few sittings. I bet teenagers will cry buckets over it. As an adult and a mother, it was also heartbreaking to read because of course I couldn’t help but identify with Jenna’s mother.

What is the magic formula that Scandinavian writers have to pull us readers in, although I have never set a foot in Sweden? Is it the relatability? The tell-it-like-it-is approach, the one that pulls no punches? The simplicity that makes it universal? (I’m not approaching the Ikea cliché, no I won’t). Is it the noticeable absence of prudish tiptoeing around issues like sex, death, religion and body? I’m sure there must be some characteristics of Swedish culture that are very specific, exotic and not understandable to me, but this book spoke to me and made me see life through Jenna’s eyes without filter nor distance. Which is a testament to the quality of the book, and made it totally worthwhile.

Henning Mankell, The Return of the Dancing Master (2000)

Hey, this is Wednesday again, the time where I try to cram all the writing I’d love to do but can’t in a single session! I’m slightly dazed by sleep deprivation and the summer heat, but I’m still going to tell you about the latest chilly thriller I “read” on audiobook lately. Because chilly is refreshing in this season, and the long days keep the bad guys lurking in the dark at bay.

More than a decade ago (or so I guess, that was pre-blog days, pre-children, pre-marriage, pre-historical maybe?), I went on a Mankell binge. And then I had too much of Wallander and I moved on. Nothing personal, but our ways parted somewhere near Ystad, Sweden.

Lately the choice in audiobooks at our neighborhood library focuses on best-sellers, and so I have come full circle back to Mankell, and I am quite content. There’s something especially comforting in going back to a writer you’ve enjoyed many years before (except when it goes awry, like when I tried to reconnect with Patricia Cornwell and Kay Scarpetta — well, I just remembered this bit, and that’s lucky, because it would have made me hesitant).

This thriller doesn’t feature Wallander but another inspector, Stefan Lindman, who happens to be on medical leave from his police job because he has a throat cancer. This part bothered me, because it felt like a poor excuse for the traditionally downbeat hero (so depressed that even his sidekick tries to cheer him up) who is free from procedural constraints, yet knowledgeable in police investigations and has not much to lose. Add a few marital woes, very little sleep and you’ve got quite a cliché. And it didn’t add anything to the story itself.

But still, Mankell knows how to plot like a master. Like a dancing master to be exact. Like a dancing master who kills an old man in an isolated house in the woods, in the middle of Swedish nowhere, with sadistic torture and the finishing touch of making the corpse of his victim leave bloody footsteps of a tango dance. If you’re not hooked right from the beginning, maybe thrillers are just not your cup of tea.

This one is a model of the genre, while managing to be unpredictable at all times. I won’t tell you in details but there are some places where I wished my commute was twice as long! The focus of Mankell is the rise of Neo-nazi in seemingly tranquil Sweden, and how the shadows of WWII still linger in present time. I realize that Stefan Lindman’s cancer may be a metaphor, but then it would be quite a heavy-handed one. I prefer to keep the memory of unsettling passages where the hero discovers that everything he held for certain proved fake. Beware of Swedish retirees, they aren’t the doting grannies and grandpas they seem to be.

Now, this book was first published in 2000, and sometimes it shows. Lindman and his police buddys are downright naive about the internet and computers, and they lose quite a lot of time that would have been solved in just one or two Google inquiries nowadays. The book is violent, but we have seen much worse since, and a lot more paranoid too. As far as extremist conspiracies go, we have gone a big step forward in recent years, and I nearly expected Mankell to go even darker and bleaker than he actually did.