From 1965 to 1975 husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo sat down to write a series of ten detective novels, It was only ever going to be ten novels and together they would make one large novel. They were both journalists and Marxists and their idea was to use the crime fiction genre to pass social comment on Swedish scoiety of the time. The final, tenth book was completed and published just a few months before Wahloo’s untimely death from cancer.
Roseanna is thef first in the series and is a fast-paced, superbly written police procedural. It is deeply rooted in its time, a time without mobile phones, e-mail, computers and a time when receiving a package from America takes a matter of days and placing an international trunk call is a major exercise in planning. Indeed time, or the passing of time, is a key character in the book. Often days and weeks go by where nothing happens.
Nevertheless, this reads as a very modern piece of detective fiction. The central character, Martin Beck (always referred to by his full name) is a deeply flawed, morose individual whose obsession with his work (he is compelled to work, rather than enjoying it) leads him to neglect his family. He has a teenage daughter he can’t communicate with, a wife he is no longer in love with, he eats and sleeps irregularly and is often feeling ill. He is supported by an equally dedicated team and it is the team, rather than the individual, that solves the crime, not the individual brilliance of the single, maverick detective. All these things are familiar these days in crime fiction, so oit is easy to forget that this was a radical development in the genre at the time – a clear move away from the Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers school of writing. It is easy to see Martin Beck as the forerunner of Wallander, Rebus and so many others.
These books were first published in English not long after they were published in Sweden and influenced, among others, Graham Greene. However, they have remained relatively unheard of outside of Swedenuntil recently when, in the wake of the resurgence of Scandanavian crime fiction and the particular success of Henning Mankell on the international stage, they have been republished in recent years.
Roseanna is a wonderful exemplar and it now behoves me to read the next nine in the series – and as quickly as possible.