Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A recent review by José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot blog of ‘Cop Killer’, the ninth book in the Martin Beck series written by Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö prompted me to start the first book in the series. Published in 1965, Roseanna influenced a generation of crime writers and the paperback copy I bought featured an introduction by Henning Mankell who recalled the impact of reading it at the time.

Roseanna is the story of a murdered girl fished out of the Göta canal in the Swedish city of Motala. Detective Inspector Martin Beck is called from Stockholm to assist with the murder investigation but is hampered by difficulties in identifying the victim. The case moves at a snails pace as first the detective tries to identify the girl and then discover her murderer. The victim has been sexually assaulted and strangled and through painstaking police work the culprit brought to justice.

I found the book an engrossing read and was struck by how influential the writing must have been on a generation of Scandinavian crime writers. It’s a police procedural and parts of the investigation reminded me of the books of George Simenon’s Maigret where a dogged persistence in the pursuit of justice overcomes numerous obstacles. The character of Martin Beck cuts a figure similar to Maigret, although he is far gloomier and troubled by various illnesses and a depressing home life. Minutiae of both the investigation and domestic details are narrated in a neutral non-descriptive tone, and results in a picture of Swedish society in the mid sixties gradually taking shape.

In many respects the period in which the book was set dictates the pace of the narrative. In a time before the internet or fax machines, information takes days to be transmitted across continents and the investigation creaks on at painfully slow rate. But the method of the murder could be right of an episode of ‘The Killing’ such is the timeless nature of violence against women. I was impressed by how the character of the victim, Roseanna McGraw, comes clearly through the narrative via transcripts of interviews and how non-judgemental the investigation is involving a victim who might be considered promiscuous in Swedish society at that time.

An excellent book and luckily I have another nine in the series to read.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Reactions to Reading, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reviewing the Evidence.