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.