Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Locked Room

Continuing my read through the Martin Beck series, I’m now on the eighth book and dismayed to realise that I’m heading towards the conclusion of The Story of a Crime. At TLRoomthe end of The Abominable Man, Martin Beck had been seriously wounded by a shot to the chest from a rooftop sniper. In The Locked Room  we see the slow recovery of the character as he becomes intrigued by a classic locked room mystery.

In Stockholm, a woman holds up a bank and in the process accidentally shoots and kills a customer who tries to disarm her. Across town, Karl Edvin Svard is found shot dead through the heart in a room locked from within, with no evidence of the firearm. The first case is investigated by the bank robbery squad, whose gung-ho attitude has farcical results. Meanwhile Martin Beck, who has been languishing on sick leave for 15 months is given the case of the locked room. By looking at the background of the victim he hits on an interesting connection between the shootings.

This is classic Sjöwall and Wahlöö where two disparate investigations are pieced together with painstaking care until a resolution is reached. The bank robbery squad is headed by a new character to the series, the aptly nicknamed Bulldozer Olsson, but there are some other interesting additions too, most notably the notorious bank robbers Malmstrom and Mohren. Neither police nor villains seem particularly competent.

I suppose the least interesting aspect of the book is the locked room element. They’re not my favourite type of crime books, and I wasn’t much interested in the reveal of how the crime had been committed, although there is a clever twist to the culprit being caught. What the locked room element does though, is introduce the character of Rhea Nielsen, a new love interest for Martin Beck.

Perhaps not the best book in the series but redeemed I think by the sly ending.

The book has also been reviewed at The Game’s Afoot, Eurocrime and Crime Segments.

Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Abominable Man

The Abominable ManThe last book that I read in this series, Murder at the Savoy, didn’t quite live up to my expectations so I thought I’d give the Martin Beck novels a rest for a while. However, over Christmas I read and enjoyed  The Abominable Man, where the writing duo turn their spotlight onto the corruption within the police force with the murder of Chief Inspector Stig Nyman in his hospital bed. As Nyman’s past comes to light, there is no shortage of suspects for Martin Beck and his colleagues to investigate.

Nyman, the ‘abominable man’ of the title, was known throughout the force for his sadism and for the number of complaints made against him that had never been proven. He had been in hospital for a few weeks with an undiagnosed stomach complaint when he is found murdered, his body punctured by numerous bayonet wounds. When Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg look into his background, they are surprised at the extent to which he had demarked his working and family life. In the police force, he surrounded himself with a coterie of acolytes who helped cover up his brutality and bullying. At homes, however, he appeared to be a model husband and father whose only quirk was his unwillingness of let any of his colleagues into his house. The savagery of the bayonet attack, however, suggests that one of Nyman’s victims is finally exacting his revenge.

After Beck’s trip to Malmö in the last book, it was good to see him back on home territory with the stalwarts of his team. Once more, we got glimpses of Kollberg’s home life, as he yearns to get a career outside the police force and of his spiky relationship with ex-marine Gunvald Larsson. But the book has a serious message, that of police corruption and ineptitude and cleverly the writers bring together various strands of previous books. In particular there is a shocking event involving some of the force’s more ineffectual officers and the book has a horrific conclusion.

As a crime novel, it is less a ‘whodunnit’ and more an assessment of a chain of events that begins with the recruitment years earlier of a generation of men from the army, who struggle to find a place in the Stockholm police as it undergoes a period of liberalisation. By the time the novel is written, the tide is turning once more as police struggle to cope with the social problems of late twentieth century Sweden. For me, the series is back on firm territory and I’m going to be reading book eight, The Locked Room, soon.

Other reviews of The Abominable Man can be found at Eurocrime and Crime Scraps.

Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – Murder at the Savoy

Continuing my read through the excellent Martin Beck series, I’ve just finished Murder at the Savoy, a slightly more downbeat read than I had expected. A dinner at the Savoy Hotel in Malmo ends in disaster when one of the guests, Viktor Palmgren is shot by an unknown assassin. The case is given to DI Per Mansson but the police have already wasted valuable time in the aftermath of the shooting. When a suspect is identified, the disaster prone duo, Kvant and Kristiansson, are asked to intercept him in Stockholm and the man escapes. Martin Beck is sent to Malmo to assist Mansson and by sifting through the clues and interviewing suspects, the case is finally solved. However, Martin Beck is filled with a sense of ennui as he considers the exploitative business practices of the victim and his instinctive sympathy for the killer.

Although the majority of the books in this series can be read as standalones, I found this to be one of the less accessible novels and the tone not particularly representative of the earlier books in the series. Whereas other books clearly comment on developments in Swedish society, the authors’ clear disapproval of contemporary business practices came across clearly in the narrative. Admittedly it is through the eyes of the various detectives that we come to see the amorality of the dead man’s working and personal life (the victim will hardly be missed by his family and friends) but it often felt like it was the writers who were speaking rather than the characters. It makes for a sometimes preachy read, although, as I have come to expect from this series, there are some wonderful light touches inserted into the book. In particular the Kvant and Kristiansson episode is very funny and reflects the original Swedish title of the book which can be translated as ‘Police, Police, Potato Pig.’

There are some intriguing developments for Martin Beck as a character in the narrative which may well be developed in the later books and also some interesting insights into the changing nature of marriage. I enjoyed the book but was glad to leave the slightly grim tone behind. I’m hoping that the next in the series, The Abominable Man, will return to a lighter touch as the authors cast their gaze around Swedish society.

I bought my copy of the book.

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.

Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Laughing Policeman

As I continue to read my way through this series, I’m beginning to notice emerging themes and preoccupations of these excellent books. In The Laughing Policeman the overriding sense is of life wasted and how a private obsession can spiral into something catastrophic.

The book opens with a mass killing on a Stockholm bus. Eight people are killed and the sole survivor is only able to utter barely intelligible sounds when police ask him to identify the killer. On the bus was an off-duty detective, Ake Strenstrom, who managed to draw his gun before he was killed.

Inspector Martin Beck and his assistant Kollberg are perplexed by Strenstrom’s presence amongst the dead. Unless he was involved in an investigation, he shouldn’t have been carrying his service revolver. However, when Beck and Kollberg interview Strenstrom’s girlfriend it becomes clear that he was attempting to solve a cold case, the murder of Teresa Camarão which took place years earlier. The team are forced to retrace the steps of the original investigation to discover the killer involved in both cases.

Despite the presence of mass murder, the tone of the book is as I’ve come to expect, sober and restrained. Beck approaches the investigation in his usual methodical manner, judging and not-judging at the same time. The Stockholm police are as varied as ever. The luckless Kristiansson and Kvant who are slow to discover the mass killing and contaminate the scene of the crime are given a dressing down by their superior but supported by Martin Beck who seems to realise there is more at stake than simple police incompetence.

There are moments of grim humour. The dead Strenstrom had photographed his long-term girlfriend in a number of sexual positions to try to enter the mind of the dead Teresa. The detectives are embarrassed to find the photographs in Strenstrom’s desk and Kollberg in particular seems to find the images perplexing. The writers are wonderful at writing understated prose, especially about relationships. There is a particularly moving scene where Beck is terrified that it is Kollberg who is the policeman who has been killed on the bus.

I found the ending of the book slightly flat. The laughing policeman of the title is a reference to the song made famous by Charles Penrose. At the end, Beck laughs humorously at something he finds, but there is rarely a feeling of hope in the books of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. But as expected I very much enjoyed this book and once more was impressed by the inventiveness of this writing duo.

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Crime Segments and Avadhut Recommends.

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.

Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.

Trying to pace my reading of this series is proving impossible and as each book drops through my letterbox, courtesy of AbeBooks, the temptation to start reading is too great. This week I succumbed to  The Man Who Went Up in Smoke , which moves the narrative from 1960s Sweden to the charms of Iron Curtain Budapest.

Stockholm detective, Martin Beck, is sent to Hungary on the trail of a missing journalist, Alf Matsson. Forced to abandon his family holiday, he slowly becomes convinced that the case is more than a reporter who has gone AWOL. He checks into the same hotel as the missing man and follows up a series of clues which brings him to the attention of the Hungarian police.

Only when an attempt is made on his life do the threads of the case begin to come together and the police forces of the two countries begin to work together. Back in Stockholm, the police team painstakingly follow-up leads until the solution to the problem is revealed.

The book was similar in pace and tone to the first in the series, Roseanna. However, while the subject matter of the first book was the sexual attacks taking place on women, in the second the writers highlight the underground drugs industry that allow narcotics into Sweden through the ‘soft’ route of Iron Curtain countries.

Written in 1966, the book foreshadows some of the issues later addressed in the writing of Henning Mankell and in TMWWUIS I could see the similarities between Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander, as Beck aimlessly wanders the Budapest streets looking for inspiration. But like Roseanna, it is a police procedural where painstaking sifting of evidence eventually solves the case.

The descriptions of Budapest behind the Iron Curtain were fascinating with a real sense of time lost. The relationship between Beck and his Hungarian counterpart was also excellent – as mutual suspicion gives way to grudging respect. Once back in Sweden, the book is on familiar territory as we see Beck and his even more downbeat colleague Kollberg, methodically sift through clues. The writing was, as usual, excellent and in this book I felt the light touch of the translator, Joan Tate, who provides such perfectly pared down prose.

Other reviews can be found at Euro Crime and Mysteries in Paradise.