Book review: Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

28 01 2017

The series of ten ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals written, in the sixties and seventies, by Swedish duo Sjöwall and (the late) Wahlöö is their most widely-known and influential creation; these works have a reputation as the wellspring from which every subsequent Scandinavian crime novel (and many a non-Scandinavian one also) has either directly or indirectly drawn inspiration. They’ve also given rise to an enviable total of 46 movies, with the role of Beck taken by actors including Derek Jacobi and Walter Matthau.

The books are known for their careful construction, for their deliberate social realism, and for the quantity of preparation with which the series was planned: published one per year from 1965, each novel progresses the circumstances of Beck and those around him by one year, so the series maps out—in background—a decade of social development in Sweden.

Both Sjöwall and Wahlöö also wrote separately (indeed, I think Sjöwall is still active as a writer, as well as a translator), though little of their individual output has seen English translation. There are a few Wahlöö titles in English (I’ve reviewed Murder on the Thirty-First Floor here), but I’m not aware of any of Sjöwall’s work (including Danish Incident, coauthored with Bjarne Nielsen, and The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo, coauthored with Tomas Ross) that has yet appeared in English.

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Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965, translated by Lois Roth) is the first book in the Martin Beck series. It opens with the discovery, during dredging of the Göta Canal at Borenshult in the summer of 1964, of the waterlogged, unclothed body of a young woman, dead some two or three days. The local police in Motala open an investigation into the woman’s death, but after two weeks no headway has been made by Gunnar Ahlberg and his associates, and the assistance of the Stockholm homicide bureau is sought. When Detective Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues Kollberg and Mellander arrive on the scene, the woman’s identity remains unknown; there are no suspects; there are no clues as to any motive for her death; all that is known, beyond the contents of her last meal and the approximate time of death, is that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The practical, dyspeptic Beck sets about attempting to elucidate further information about a murder for which, it seems, no clues exist. Very gradually, during the next half year, the crime emerges from a fog of near-total uncertainty.

The pacing of this crime novel is, by more modern standards, somewhat slow, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative: it allows space for the calm, undemonstrative characterisation to take hold as the story unfolds. And though the novel does not conceal the sense of often-directionless ennui that must accompany a six-month-long investigation, it also provides definite flashes of humour and of heightening tension along the way. The prose has the same sense of quietly ironic detachment as is a feature of Wahlöö’s Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, though Roseanna feels richer, busier, more sharply defined by place (because it is, after all, a novel inhabiting a specified and recognisable set of localities within Sweden rather than within an effectively-allegorical futuristic mid-European state). And the pacing and plotting also make plain, by comparison with a society now half a century newer, just how much difference is made by the technological furniture of the time. This is an investigation conducted by typewriter and mail delivery, at a time before the fax machine, a time when telephones were inevitably-deskbound devices for the sole purpose of verbal communication. (The past is a different country, etc.)

This is an effective, ingenious, and detailed novel; it’ll be interesting to see how its nine successors compare with it.





Book review(s): two Swedish murder mysteries

22 08 2016

Another doubled-up book review. There’s not really a connection of any kind between these two books, other than that they’re by two authors who remain influential and who were, in their respective times, at the forefront of the Swedish crime fiction scene.

Per Wahlöö (d. 1975) wrote a series of standalone crime novels, but is probably best known as the co-author (with his partner Maj Sjöwall) of the Martin Beck series of mysteries. Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (Mord på 31:a våningen, 1964, translated by Sarah Death) is one of his standalones.

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Inspector Jensen is directed to investigate an anonymous bomb threat made against the staff of a large publishing company by, it is presumed, a disgruntled former employee. Jensen is told by his superintendent that the investigation must be discreet, thorough, and quick, and the Inspector loses no time in getting to work on the case. But everyone he questions on the matter appears to have something to hide, especially the company’s senior employees.

This book is written in a severe, spare style which threatens to date it. Another aspect that sets it apart from the other Swedish crime novels I’ve read recently is its setting: the story unfolds within a large city that is never identified, in an unnamed country, at some point within (as it was then) the near future. It is, thus, in a sense, a work of science fiction, and indeed there are parallels with some genre works: not, especially, with Asimov’s Lije Baley / R Daneel Olivaw novels (except, I suppose, in the sheer lack of ornamentation to the writing), nor with Larry Niven’s ‘Gil Hamilton’ stories, but quite strongly with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as with lit-dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s particularly redonent of the Truffaut film of Fahrenheit 451, with its twin themes of (a) societal homogenisation through vapid entertainment and (b) literature as danger.

The prose’s flatness has a distancing effect, and Jensen is so sketchily drawn as not to engage the reader’s empathy to any significant extent. Furthermore, many of the dialogues which unfold during the investigation are quite polemical, to the extent that it does become difficult, in places, to view the work as a genuine mystery story. Nonetheless, it does hang together, and it reaches its destination in good order. I suppose its impact rests, ultimately, on the extent to which the reader is prepared to countenance a future in which one print / media company has such an overwhelming grip on the dissemination of information as to exert effectively complete control over the society in which it is embedded …

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If Murder on the Thirty-First Floor sketches a possible future, The Troubled Man (Den orolige mannen, 2009, translated by Laurie Thompson) details a plausible past.

Henning Mankell (d. 2015) was a prolific writer of crime fiction, children’s novels, plays and screenplays, best known for the series of crime novels featuring Kurt Wallander, a dour and somewhat reclusive detective. Like the Marxist Wahlöö, Mankell’s political beliefs were substantially towards the left, and he took a keen interest in world affairs, actively supporting numerous charities involved in Africa (especially Mozambique); he was also aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 when it was boarded by Israeli military forces. With this personal background, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that The Troubled Man (in which Wallander seeks to solve the disappearance of his daughter Linda’s father-in-law Håkan von Enke, a retired submarine commander who played an active role, in 1982, in the attempted interception of a Soviet submarine in Swedish territorial waters) does carry something of a political flavour. But there’s such a wealth of backstory, and of character interplay, that this story of the aging detective is consistently engaging and well-realised, with episodes of genuine pathos. It’s probably not, though, the ideal book from which to start exploring the Wallander sequence, because it’s set so late in his career.

The story is a complex one, in which Mankell explores not just Håkan’s disappearance but that of Håkan’s wife Louise, as well as Wallander’s failing health, Sweden’s political and social turmoil following the (still unsolved) assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, and the geopolitical difficulties faced by a wealthy country trying to walk a line of ostensible neutrality. Von Enke’s background as a submariner is dealt with in what seems to be very credible detail, and the recurrence of what appear to be minor characters from some of the much earlier Wallander novels gives the book an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ flavour. It’s not a quick read—it certainly takes its time to get to the source of the crime—but it holds together well and it breathes a lot of life into its characters (even the dead ones). Isn’t that what one looks for in crime fiction?