Writing the Unspeakable – Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö and Marco Vichi

I’ve read two crime novels recently where the plot was centred around the murder of young children. This is a difficult subject to write about, and a number of events I’ve been to over the years suggests that crime writers hesitate to tackle the issue. Henning Mankell once said that he had started a book involving the abuse of a child and simply didn’t finish it. Similarly, recently a CrimeFest panel led by the excellent Anne Zouroudi, concurred that it would be difficult to write about the murder of a child. As a reader, it’s a difficult subject to contemplate but child murders do occur in real life and I grew up in South Manchester in the 1980s where the Moors Murders were still in the recent past.

In The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Martin Beck and his team have to face the deaths around Stockholm of young girls who are murdered and assaulted in the city’s parks. The two witnesses are a vicious mugger who is only willing to tell what he knows to the lugubrious and unpopular cop Gunvald Larsson, and a three year old boy whose testimony is limited. As Beck and the team inch nearer to the killer they become frustrated by the slow progress but Beck finally is able to link a phone call about a man on a balcony watching children play, to the description of the killer.

By now I’m used to the style of writing in the Sjöwall/Wahlöö series and in some respect, the neutral tone of the narrative gave some relief from the horrors of the story. Although detectives are clearly shocked by the murders, the investigation is never portrayed as a personal act of vengeance but rather as a another, albeit shocking, case that must be painstakingly investigated and solved. But once more, we see the underbelly of liberal Swedish society, set towards the end of the swinging sixties where sexual freedom has come at a price and it is being paid by young girls. In a particularly shocking scene, Beck is offered nude photographs by a girl who has gone into a photo-booth and lifted her dress to her armpits. Someone, Beck thinks wearily, will no doubt buy them.

Marco Vichi’s Death and the Olive Grove hides, behind its deceptively bucolic title, a similar theme. Although published at the beginning of this year, Vichi sets his books in early 1960s Florence, where a man is killing young children and leaving behind a peculiar signature on the bodies. Inspector Bordelli becomes frustrated at the pace of the investigation and the way in which the killer continually outwits them. It is only when he becomes romantically involved with a woman hunting down Nazis who were acquitted at Nuremberg, does the case begin to open up.

Vichi’s undoubted strength is in his characterisation. Bordelli is an interesting character and the book is interspersed with reflections of his war experiences. The overshadowing of 1960s Italian life by the collective experiences of war is a central theme of this book, and works quite well although I found the nature of the killings of the children distasteful. But Vichi writes particularly well about the grief felt by the parents of the young girls, with one mother for example simply refusing to accept that her daughter is dead. It was an interesting book and I would read Vichi again mainly because I liked the central character.

So two well written books on a subject that is both upsetting and repelling. The subject matter, in my opinion, is only approachable in these two novels because they are written without descriptions of excessive violence and in a neutral tone. For a discussion on more extreme depictions of violence towards children, have a look at the debate at Reactions to Reading.

Reviews of The Man on the Balcony can be found at Eurocrime and Murder by Type.

Death and the Olive Grove has been reviewed by Shots and International Noir.

11 thoughts on “Writing the Unspeakable – Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö and Marco Vichi

  1. Excellent analysis Sarah and I look forward to reading both of the books you mention as they tackle the difficult subject far more intelligently than was done in the book I read. I agree it is a difficult subject but, as you say, it does happen in real life and so will inevitably be tackled by fiction and as long as it is done with a degree of sensitivity and intelligence I can cope with it.

    • Thanks Bernadette. I was very taken by your review of the McBride book and it is interesting to think about the levels of violence we are willing tolerate.

  2. Yes, a very good analysis. I haven’t read the second Vichi book as I didn’t enjoy the first one, but agree very much with your take on the Sjowall/Wahloo book. Hakan Nesser’s latest translated, The Hour of The Wolf, does it well, too, though the victim is a teenager not a young child. This theme is also treated well by Karin Fossum in several books.
    As a keen crime reader one inevitably comes across this theme often. I’m interested in crime fiction because it addresses these universal topics (from Greek drama on) but my interest in it is much more to do with the reactions of people/society than to the crime itself. Therefore although I’m happy to read books on the subject I draw the lines at books that do so for entertainment, eg salivating over the ordeal and/or the actual death, & also when a lot of emphasis is put on the murderer’s lunacy and so on. I was very uneasy about Unwanted by Kristina Ohlssen for these reasons, as well as Simon Lelic’s latest novel which borrowed from a real-life case. Neither book was “good” enough to justify the subject matter, & I was left wondering how much of the topic was there for commercial reasons.
    Any theme, however upsetting, can be done well, without necessarily glossing over anything. But it is more often done lazily and badly, for gruesome entertainment – in which case the book is a DNF for me.

    • Thanks Maxine. I haven’t read either the Fossum or the Ohlssen books but I agree Nesser tackled the subject well in ‘Hour of the Wolf’. As you say, the plot shouldn’t hinge on the descriptions of the murders but be a driving force for events and the investigations. I did find the books I reviewed quite an uncomfortable read and would have felt happier with a different subject matter but they were still good books.

  3. Sarah – You’ve done a terrific job here discussing this topic. I think you’ve hit on something too that is really important when it comes to dealing with this subject in fiction: attention to the level of violence. It’s horrible enough to contemplate child murders; including the descriptions of them, particularly in gruesome detail, takes away from the story. It’s not only nauseating to read but pulls attention away from the real horror, which is the loss of the child. I think that aspect – contemplating the actual loss – makes a story all the more compelling. I agree completely with your excellent analysis here; the theme is done quite well in the Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel (I’ll confess I’ve not yet read the Vichi).

    • Thanks Margot. I completely agree with you and that was may main criticism of the Vichi book. There is an element to the child murders which I didn’t really like and I thought it extraneous to the narrative. The power of the imagination is often enough in these situations.

  4. This is a very hard topic. I thought as do you that Sjowall and Wahloo handled it without gratuitous violence or overdone descriptions of the brutal act in The Man on the Balcony. They handled it matter of factly. There was a crime. It happened. The victim was a child. Now on to the investigation. And then a police procedural step by step investigation was carried out, the suspect found and arrested.
    I would not like to read anything with overdone or gruesome descriptions. And certainly would put down — or throw out — any book I was reading which went in that direction. (I had to skip some sections of a recent Michael Connelly book, even though I like his writing and Harry Bosch. Too much detail and horror about gruesome anti-child crimes. I wish he’d left out some of the descriptions.)
    Hakan Nesser also handled the murder of young teenaged girls without any
    gruesome descriptions or delving into a psychopath’s mind in The Inspector and Silence. This turned out to be one of my favorite books by this excellent author. Well-done, well-written, nothing going over the line to “entertainment” or “thriller-dom.”
    In Sjowall and Wahloo’s book, I didn’t think they were saying that sexual freedom contributed to violence against children. There have been sociopaths and psychopaths throughout centuriesworldwide in the most repressive societies and still are today. (Just read the news today about a gang rape of a young woman in Afghanistan, a very repressive society where women are not allowed to do anything.) I think extreme sexism and inequality of women contributes to this, where women have no rights and children are seen as not having any rights either.
    And even in the States, there is so much sexual abuse of children and young teenagers, even by family members and friends and trusted adults — doctors, coaches, teachers — and this has gone on for decades, starting way before recent social openness. Lots of adults talk about this happening when they were children 50 or 60 years ago. It just wasn’t discussed nor publicized.

  5. Thanks for your comments Kathy. I agree Hakan Nesser handles the subject well too and the second book that I reviewed, by Marbo Vichi was very similar in tone to Nesser.
    It is interesting what has been happening in the US, and indeed around the world in places such as Ireland, highlighting the abuses that went on. A friend of mine, Michael Malone has just published a book called ‘Blood Tears’ partly addressing the abuses that took place in Catholic orphanages. I’m looking forward to reading this (I saw an early draft).

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