On the face of it this is a book that is going to get slotted into a bookshop in the crime section and as a result it gets a response that it is just simply a thriller. Add to that the combination of the names Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo and no doubt it closes off another potential slice of the readership fearful of a book heralding from Sweden. But both views would be narrow minded because crime fiction does not necessarily have to mean airport novel and foreign is not necessarily something to be fearful of.
But it was exactly because it was a book from foreign authors that was the attraction and for those that have never been in Sweden, a big hands up here, the locations are exotic in being completely unknown. But it is the way this is written, with the husband and wife team taking alternate chapters, that makes it unlike most other crime books you will have come across. The use of time is brave and crucial and the complex emotional side to the main character is painted lightly but expertly.
A woman’s body is pulled out of a canal and for three months no one has a clue who she is and although the services of Martin Beck and his two assistants are called in from the big city there is no breakthrough. Then they get a confirmation of an identity – an American tourist called Roseanna – but things then stall again. Beck becomes obsessed with cracking the case and the leg work that the police put in is incredible and they work out where she was killed and eventually after canvassing all of the passengers and getting photographs and film footage have an idea of the person who might have done it. But who was he? As they chase down the identity of the killer, and that involves weeks of watching and baiting with a female officer under cover, the tension rises. One of the witnesses that helps the police work out that a man in a removals company is the likely candidate runs for her life and in the end in a scene that pumps adrenaline the killer almost makes it a double as he gets close to killing to police woman set to trap him. Then beck has the task of getting him to crumble under questioning and manages to do it in a way that reminds you of Henry Fonda going for Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler. Exhausted but triumphant he wanders home to see his family for the first time in weeks.
Is it well written?
Time is a real device here with it taking months and then weeks for each stage of the case to be solved. The research working out what would happen in this sort of case is shown from the very start. In an interview at the end of the book Sjowall admits that the police as an institution is described in such detail because it is an extra character. Add to that the approach taken to the main character, martin beck, and it is again different. He is ill most of the time, in a relationship that is falling part and a bit of a loner. Those characteristics are not unusual in crime solvers but he is also seen as impotent as the weeks go by, isolated as some colleagues pour scorn on his theories and partly to blame for his marital mess. The fact you stick with him is because of the way he quietly but determinedly continues on the quest to get the truth and justice. This is not a case of a body falling out of a wardrobe every other chapter but the fact the tension is still there at the end shows that it has still succeeded in being gripping.
Should it be read?
By now it should be obvious that this book was very enjoyable and for that reason it deserves to be given a reading. It is also intelligent and written with a discipline that could have been dropped but would have undermined a structure that holds tight for 30 chapters. Although this is the first of a ten part series of books it doesn’t feel like that and so that should not be a stumbling block.
In the end, and it might take a long time, justice will catch up with the killer
Version read – Harper Perennial paperback