Continuing my read through the Martin Beck series, I’ve just finished the fifth book, The Fire Engine that Disappeared. My version had an introduction by Colin Dexter, who freely admitted that he hadn’t read any of the series until he was asked to provide an foreword for the book. What struck Dexter, and will come as no surprise to fans of the series, was the humour contained within the writing. This is particularly the case, I think, with this book.
The Fire Engine that Disappeared opens with policeman, Gunvald Larsson sitting outside a block of flats watching the movements of a suspected offender. Suddenly an explosion rips through the building and Larsson, a burly ex-seaman, rushes in to save those occupants still alive, an act of heroism that is largely ignored by his colleagues. As the police team attempt to discover whether the fire was arson or an accident, Larsson who has been signed of sick, decides to do some investigating of his own.
Previous books in the series have always emphasised the importance of the team in solving an investigation and here every policeman is given a small character precis It’s here that the brevity of the Sjöwall/Wahlöö writing comes into its own, with tiny vignettes about the methodical Fredrik Melander and his plain wife or Einar Rönn, whose young son has lost his toy fire engine.
However, detective Martin Beck whose life we have followed most closely in the series isn’t forgotten. Beck takes a lesser role in the actual investigation of the fire but the family scenes clearly show him at a crossroads as he considers his role as husband and father, as his marriage disintegrates and his teenage children grow up.
The focus of this books seems to be about the tensions that exist within a police investigation, including the relationship between the bullish Larsson and Lennart Kollberg , two completely different types of policemen whose methods are deplored by the other. But there are flashes of humour and insight- from Benny Skacke the youngest team member who wants to be Chief of Police and is prepared to drop his girlfriend at the hint of a lead, to the methodical Melander who despite (or because of) his lack of imagination, is an excellent policeman.
I found the criminal investigation to be slightly convoluted and lost the thread a few times but overall I enjoyed the book and, I suspect, it sets up a number of themes for later novels in the series.