Swedish schnapps

The Martin Beck mysteries
By WILLIAM CORBETT  |  December 2, 2008

081205_swedes_main
CLASSICS: Henning Mankell, Michael Ondaatje, and Michael Connelly agree that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote “the first great series of police thrillers.”

Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke | By Maj SjöwAll and Per Wahlöö | Vintage Crime | 224/192 pages | $13.95 each
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck mysteries are back in a fourth American printing. The first two — Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke — are out now, and the next two will appear in the spring. There are 10 novels in all, making up what the poet wife and the journalist husband titled "The Story of Crime." The series first appeared in the years 1965–1975 (Wahlöö died in 1975), a period of intensifying violence among Sweden's criminals — violence subtly linked by Sjöwall and Wahlöö to America's war on Vietnam. Not a great leap, since many Americans who refused the draft settled in Sweden, and Swedes actively protested the war.

The Martin Beck novels are exceptional fiction and will especially please readers of Henning Mankell (he contributes an introduction to Roseanna), whose own series of 10 Kurt Wallander novels is now complete. Mankell, Michael Ondaatje, and Michael Connelly agree that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote, in Ondaatje's phrase, "the first great series of police thrillers."

In the genre, the Martin Beck novels are "police procedurals," which is not a form of crime fiction at which American writers excel. We love the shamus, the private eye, the knight or lone wolf, the one good man in what W.H. Auden called "the Great Wrong Place": Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Connelly's Hieronymus Bosch, Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Marlowe and Reacher have been policemen; now they operate outside the law, natural enemies of authority. Bosch is still a cop, but he's at odds with his higher-ups and stubbornly goes his own way. Chief Inspector Martin Beck, by no means an organization man, is, like Kurt Wallander, part of a team. The moral vision of Sjöwall and Wahlöö sees essential value in the men and women who pursue criminals in our violent world. Remember Augusto Pinochet and the Spanish judge who had him arrested on a London street.

Beck is a brilliant interrogator who throws himself into his cases. His marriage suffers from his single-mindedness; then, like Wallander's, it ends. (Marlowe and Reacher are bachelors; Bosch has been married but is wedded to what can only be termed his calling.) Beck is also, like Wallander, the sort of investigator who notices small things and operates on instinct. At some point in most of the novels he puts the pieces together, sees what others have not seen, and acts. He is less a hero than a man born to do what he is doing. It's impossible to imagine him living any other sort of life.

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