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 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.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Now I know where to turn when I want perfectly depressing cold-weather murders: 1960s Sweden of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s fame. Don’t we love them all? (uh, just kidding)

But I know my limits. After Roseanna and The Man who went up in smoke, I decided to skip the next mystery in the Beck series because it involved a child murder, and Beck’s Sweden being depressing enough, I didn’t want to add insult to injury.

The Laughing Policeman is no laughing matter (except when you take a second look and start to look for dark humor, which you’ll find aplenty). It starts with a random mass killing in a public bus in Stockholm. Among the ten victims, a young colleague of Beck is found, carrying his service weapon despite not being on duty. When his girlfriend tells the police that he was working days and nights on a case, Beck and his colleagues have no idea which one. And they aren’t even sure that the murder has anything to do with their colleague’s presence on the bus rather than with any of the other victims’ dark secret.

I don’t think the whole plot goes by with any sunny day. It’s always raining and policemen are miserable with colds and sore throats, not to mention damp feet whenever they visit witnesses and suspects. You sure can’t accuse Sjöwall and Wahlöö to glorify the police, nor to work for the Tourist bureau. Detectives’ work is painstaking and ends up in many dead-ends.

Make no mistake: it may sound suspiciously boring, but it isn’t. There’s a lot of humor and warmth in the detectives team’s description of quirks and twists. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also have a terrific eye for painting society as a whole, with just as many words as necessary. Vietnam demonstrations open the book and there’s no doubt that the writers aren’t quite happy with the conservative government of the time.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

I knew my love affair with Swedish detective inspector Martin Beck was no fling. I fell hard for him with Roseanna, and it was not too long before I contacted him again for another steamy affair.

Well, steamy, it depends what you look at. This mystery is the second in the series (a sure sign of my devotion is when I respect the order of publication for a series – pretty rare indeed if you know my reading habits). Beck is like his usual self: very very serious, dedicated to the point of being nearly obsessed by his cases, but not emotional at all. And here, he keeps his cool under very steamy, not to mention shady, circumstances.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is basically a locked room mystery, but the room is a whole country within the Iron Curtain. It’s set in 1966 Budapest, the then-communist capital city where you (both as a foreigner or a Hungarian) can’t just move around and come and go as you please. Well, the book is never about repression, but it surely shows that police is everywhere in the country and that they have a lot of information about everyone.

Or almost so.

A Swedish journalist visits Hungary to interview a swimming champion. He shows up at his hotel, drops his luggage, goes out again. And whoops, he’s nowhere to be found anymore. Just gone. Pretty embarrassing for a dictatorship, don’t you think? Beck is sent there on the day of his own annual leave, to find the missing guy without too much embarrassment. And it’s not going to be easy.

Like in Roseanna, the mystery unfolds very slowly, in quiet routine details. But to me, there was the added pleasure of seeing a place I like a lot through his 1966 eyes. Budapest in summer has a seductive torpor, even under Communist rules. Policemen visit thermal spas for a relaxing bath, that is so effective that they drop their guard and exchange information about the case. Beck takes a steamer and stays in a hotel with faded grandeur, whose old bed creaks. It rings quite true.

I can’t wait for my next meeting with Inspector Beck. In Sweden this time? Actually, anywhere he wishes.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Roseanna (1965)

Mr. Smithereens was right.

The owners of that little bookshop in Brittany were right.

Kate was right too!

I should have given my attention to this book a lot earlier, what a great mystery!

Perhaps even my favourite mystery of the year up till now (and there were solid contenders like Josephine Tey and Frank Tallis in line). Roseanna is impressive for realism, for suspense and for sheer writing skills. The language is terse, there are a lot of conversations. Not one word is in excess, but emotions (indignation, anger, determination, pity) don’t need flowery descriptions to show on the surface.

But perhaps my exaltation doesn’t really suit “Roseanna”. It’s a police procedural that sticks to the facts. Nothing much happens for a long, long time, but believe me, it’s riveting. How so? Because in real life it takes a lot of dedication and energy not to abandon a cold case, and you can’t help but admire Martin Beck and his team from the Swedish police.

The naked body of a young woman is discovered in a canal. No identification is made. She’s not from the area. There’s absolutely no clue for whole months, until it can be ascertained that the body has been thrown from a boat and a passenger’s name can be traced. She’s Roseanna McGraw, an American tourist travelling on a boat. How a young woman from halfway across the globe can end her life in a Swedish canal? Funnily enough, Martin Beck’s world is as global as ours. Despite bad telephone lines, no internet and no Fedex to communicate physical clues and information, Martin Beck’s team painstakingly contact tourists from all over the world who have all travelled on that boat, as well as staff members who have moved on to other jobs.

That book should probably come with a warning: “Slow Book”. But surprisingly, faster books (and entertainment) come out at a disadvantage. I’ve started watching The Mentalist series on TV (with Simon Baker as Patrick Jane) right after I’d started Roseanna, and I couldn’t be bothered with the tricks and “jumping on conclusions” of the program. It seemed faked and superficial compared to the Swedish police.