And so back to Martin Beck. The Locked Room is the eighth volume in the Martin Beck series. This time the story concentrates on two parallel investigations by the Stockholm Police – a bank robbery (or a series of bank robberies) and the discovery of a murdered corpse in a room that has been locked and secured from the inside. In his introduction, American writer Michael Connelly says that he finds The Locked Room the most satidfying in the series and I can see why he might say this. The plotting is the most complex so far and it differs from the other volumes I’ve read so far in a number of ways.
Firstly, Martin Beck plays something of a backseat role. Beck is convalescing after receiving a gunshot wound and he is given The Locked Room case as a kind of mental exercise to ease him back into work. And he works on the case alone. Despite the book’s title, it is the bank robbery that is the prominent case and Beck plays no part in this investigation until the very end, when it is established that there are tenuous links between the two cases. So Beck is absent from a large section in the middle of the book.
Secondly, whilst in the other books Sjowall and Wahloo’s social and political commentary is never far from the story, in The Locked Room, they are more forthright and strident, with whole paragraphs given over to attacks on the establishment, the police hierarchy (a pro-fascist organisation) and an uncaring Welfare State that hides its failings behind a liberal facade. The judicial apparatus, in particular, comes in for harsh criticism, as the book seeks to expose the brutalities and inequalities within a so-called liberal democracy. Yet whilst the authors’ outrage is almost tangible, they are never po-faced about their politics and they are always entertaining. In fact, some of the most bitingly effective pieces of political commentary sit alongside the funniest scenes, some of which would seem more at home in an Inspector Clouseau film than in the pages of a crime thriller. It is also easy to forget that this novel was written in the early seventies – at that time I was just starting to read crime fiction and was cutting my teeth on Agatha Christie, in particular. This is so far removed from all that, not least in its raw exposee of society and the way that the authors capture at least a flavour of the ordinary voices of working people.
The Locked Room clearly refers directly to the room in which the corpse is found in Beck’s case. But it just as equally refers to the prison cell in which the murderer will spend the rest of his life, and, most of all, the claustrophobic Swedish society itself with a police force that is given more to surpressing free political expression and dissent, especially that of the Left, than to contributing to a safer and more equal society.