Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Fire Engine that Disappeared

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.

Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Past Offences, Crime Segments and Mysteries in Paradise.

12 thoughts on “Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Fire Engine that Disappeared

  1. I liked this book a lot, as with all the others. They are quite idiosyncratic, in that the authors are working to a planned “point”, so characters tend to act out their authors’ convictions. I suspect they are a ‘love or hate it ‘ phenomenon, a bit like books about gangsters/guns (auto-turn off for me but fascinating to many).


  2. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – What a lovely review. I’m glad you highlighted the ‘ensemble’ nature of this series, as I think it’s one of the very positive things about it. And yes, I’d have to agree this novel has a welcome spice of humour in it. I also agree that the spare efficient prose in this novel is just right for this story. Thanks for the reminder of a series that I think every crime fiction fan should read.


    1. Thanks Sarah and glad you are still powering through the series. I was delighted to learn over the weekend that Radio 4 will be running some new dramatisations soon of the Beck series so even more people will have the chance to share our appreciation!


  3. kathy d.

    I liked this book in the series. It was interesting, the overall plot and the side action. I recall that the other thing that irked me was the abrupt ending. But I did enjoy it, as I go along for the ride with Martin Beck and his colleagues.
    It’s a good thing that Beck will come to radio. I hope we’ll get tapes or something over here, where I’m still trying to get the European version of The Killing and Montalbano’s series, which is available in Britain.
    We’re getting over here on PBS/BBC The Midwife and Upstairs, Downstairs.


    1. That’s a good point Kathy. I often find the ending of these books finish abruptly.

      You will be able to listen to the Martin Beck dramatisation any time on the internet once it’s been broadcast throught the BBC website. The radio is available worldwide. I don’t know when it’s being broadcast but here is the page:
      Do you have a DVD player that plays mulit-regional? You’re welcome to my copy of the DVD of The Killing if you can play it. I too have just discovered Montalbano and am enjoying the episodes
      I haven’t tried either The Midwife or Upstairs Downstairs (although I watched the original series as a child).


  4. kathy d.

    Thanks. I’ll listen to the radio program with Martin Beck.
    Thanks so much for your offer of the dvd of The Killing. I don’t have a very sophisticated dvd player, though. I may get one at some point. I will cave and buy the first few Montalbano episodes and see how they are.
    The Midwife is fascinating. I tried to watch Upstairs/Downstairs at various times, but found it boring. However, I watched the start to this series, which shows pre-WWII intrigues and got hooked. So, I will be watching this one.


  5. Pingback: The Best of October’s Reading « crimepieces

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