“There seemed to be no one within the police administration capable of grasping the simple truth that violence breeds violence and that, in fact, it was the police who had struck the first blow.”
The reason why the crime books penned by husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are so enjoyable is because they are not just about crime and detection.
This is a book that takes you back into the 1960s and 1970s Sweden a country that suffers from suicides, gun crime and has a police force that lacks popularity. Part of the problem with the police is of course the involvement of guns and the response from the criminals who have become increasingly violent.
The book starts with just such an example with a petty bank robber who has killed a woman during a robbery because he had taken a gun along to the crime. But quickly the action shifts towards the countryside as Beck is sent to solve the dissapearance and then confirmed murder of a local woman.
In the one horse town Beck finds a different Sweden where the police are part of the community and crime has not taken over society. But even in that location there is a chance for Beck readers to become acquainted with the killer from the first book in the series and the murderer from the third. These figures are there perhaps to confuse and distract as much as to show a dedication by Sjowall and Wahloo to dig back into the rich world they have created.
If there is a dominant theme in the book, which has already emerged in the The Locked Room, it is the amount of time Beck has to spend fighting his superiors and dealing with politics. Crime solving by numbers means that innocent people are going to be sent to prison and Beck and his colleagues are resorting to using their basic police skills to outwit their superiors as well as protect the public.
This book, the ninth in a ten book series, is a return to the form of the first book in the series and by the end you are gladly immersed with the characters that you have come to care about, sympathise with and want the best for.
Onwards to the end which will be a mixed experience as reading these crime books has been great.
one of the tricks that you must be allowed to play after you have reached the ninth book in a series is to reintroduce some of the characters from the earlier books.
So the killer from the first Martin Beck book reappears here and is in the frame for another sex murder. But neither Beck or his friend Kollberg can believe that the man is innocent and against a backdrop of political pressure the two men delay putting an innocent man behind bars.
Sjowall and Wahloo are able to set the action away from Stockholm in the countryside where a murder makes big news providing a contrast with which to make points about the decline of life in 1970s Sweden.
The police are despised and the criminals are getting more trigger happy making it increasingly difficult for those that disagree with the questions of the police being armed.
A review follows soon…
‘Don’t you ever read detective stories?’
‘I read tons of them. Anything. And forget most of it as soon as I’ve finished. But that’s a classic. A room locked on the inside…’
By the eight book in a series of ten you start to fear that perhaps the initial high standards might have started to wear off. There is that worry that the characters that seemed so fresh at the start are by now hitting the boundaries of the descriptions their authors have written for them.
Those fears are totally understandable but utterly irrelevant with The Locked Room. Far from dipping in terms of quality Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo open the shoulders here and display a confidence about their world and their ability to deliver solid characters as well as well written plots. Martin Beck, the man who after all lends his name to the series, plays second fiddle here.
But what is fresh about the Locked Room is the injection of humour with some passages being almost Tom Sharpe like in the way the police descend into farce trying to catch bank robbers. The chief of police who leads an anti-vietnam march straight into a crowd of football hooligans is just one of the images that lingers.
At the heart are the parallel stories of the bank robbery that opens the book and the discovery of a dead man in a locked room who had suffered a shot to the stomach.
Police incompetence riddles both cases with Beck often expressing exasperation with his colleagues more than with the challenges of tracking down smart criminals. It is the ability to bring in the social and political background that makes the books from Sjowall and Wahloo so different because you are given an insight into a Sweden in the early 1970s, a society that dislikes the police and has political leanings towards the left. The witness who deliberately invents a get-away car does so to hinder the police and aid those he sees as fighting against society.
The other great skill in the Beck series is the way that along with the hard graft of policeman and women like Beck out there on the streets there is the way that luck plays a crucial role. They never overplay it and on the tightrope of keeping the reader believing you are always kept on the right side of falling into disbelief.
Onwards to the last couple in the series.
There is a great deal more humour in this book than some of the others in the Martin Beck series and there is incredible confidence being shown by the authors.
It’s hard to imagine anyone effectively sidelining the main character for half of the story as the action focuses elsewhere but this is what they do with Beck who as a result cuts an even lonelier figure.
In a tale dominated by bank robberies and blundering officials Beck concentrates his mind on working out just who killed the man in the locked room.
Review on completion soon…
Although this book might not have the pace of some of the earlier Beck books you have to admire the confidence that the authors have in opening up the cast of characters. Some people would rely on the main detective and a sidekick, think Morse, but here there are a handful of police officers that are fleshed out enough to be able to carry the story on their own.
If anything in this book Beck takes a background role as the foot work is done by others and the breakthrough comes collectively. This is one of those stories that is perhaps on the cusp of not only finishing the series with the last four books but feels like that because it is describing a country on the edge of change.
The constant references to the heat are not just there to paint the scene but also provide an indication of a growing friction created by change. The forces of conservatism are being attacked by the youthful led demands for change in the 60s.
The fact a thriller can convey such socio and political information without interrupting or spoiling the main story is testament to the writing ability of Sjowall and Wahloo. This leaves you wanting to crack on with the seventh book in the series.
A review will follow soon…
Every reader has a guilty pleasure, a book that although it isn’t Tolstoy fills them with joy, and in my case the genre best able to deliver that quick hit of intense reading pleasure is the thriller.
Being slightly more specific about it the police procedurals, following the case through the lens of the police activity, when done well can be gripping. Two of the masters are husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and with their creation of Martin Beck they take you onto the streets of Sweden in the 1960s and into police stations in Stockholm and Malmo.
The crime tends to take place early on and then the rest of the book is spent following Beck and his colleagues as they try to fathom the often unfathomable and bring the case to a conclusion.
This is no different with a prominent business man shot in a hotel, the Savoy dining room, by a gun man who then jumps out of an open window into the hot summer night and disappears.
From that starting point, with no clear witness statements the police have to start the hunt for a killer.
Between them the husband and wife team manage to weave together a story that often seems to be in two halves with the crime and the misunderstanding around it taking up the first chunk before they pin it down in the second.
Interestingly the main character Martin Beck doesn’t feature a great deal in this book as the other detectives step into the spotlight and help crack a crime that at first seems to be suicide and then a crime where it will be almost impossible to find the killer.
What keeps it going of course is the determination and dedication of a handful of detectives who refuse to give in even when the odds of them getting a resolution to the crime seem to be remote.
Along with the police Sweden itself plays a role along with the weather as the cold streets of Swedish cities and docks add to the mood and the feeling of despondency.
As part of the story there is a development in Beck’s family life with the breakdown of his marriage more obvious and his daughter opting to move out and make life at home even more unbearable. But he is largely in the shadows and that is a brave move. It would be hard to imagine an Inspector Morse story where the spotlight fell wholly on Lewis and others in the department solved the crime.
But that is the difference that Sjowall and Wahloo bring along with a determination to introduce political themes of the day, in this case the rumblings of discontent against the 60s love culture and drugs.
Although it is hardly going to be put on the library shelf in the category of great literature this is a real joy to read and there are moments when reading should provide this sort of experience.