The Terrorists

It is perhaps fitting that the final instalment in the Martin Beck series, The Terrorists, turns its attention from the local (even parochial) settings of most detective fiction to the international context more common in the spy thriller. The novel, arguably the most political of all in the series, centres around a group of international terrorists, seemingly without any strict ideological commitment, but who are responsible for the assassination of international leaders, statemen and dignitaries. Strictly speaking then, they are not terrorists at all, spreading terror to a whole population with acts designed to cause widescale and indiscriminate death and injury, but a group of professional assassins who target political leaders.

Martin Beck is put in charge of defeating the terrorist threat when Sweden receives the visit of an emminent, right-wing and highly objectionable politician. Whilst Beck carries out his duty dilligently, he barely conceals his contempt for the American and his views, and we, as readers, are inevitablt not without some sympathy for the terrorists. Ultimately, though we are left to conclude that whilst part of us might cheer a successful attempt on the American’s life, we realise that such actions need to be resisted and defeated – objectionable and undemocratic views are not defeated by equally objectionable and undemocratic actions.

With Lennart Kollberg having resigned on principle from the police force, this final novel serves to sum up the whole of the series and give the social concerns of the other books a global context. Set against the context of Vietnam and American foreign policy of the early 1970s, it is slightly chilling just how contemporary its concerns feel over thirty years on. The final paragraph of the book acts as a powerful summary of the series, of the larger ten volume novel that Sjowall and Wahloo conceived as a critique of Swedish society. In this final scene Beck and Kollberg and their respective partners are playing a crossword game, a game of words, just as the Martin Beck novels were Sjowall and Wahloo’s own game of words. Of particular importance is the final word in the whole series:

They all turned their papers over and drew more squares. When Kollberg was ready, he looked at Martin Beck and said, “The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’ve got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.”

“Is that all?”

“Roughly,” said Kollberg. “My turn to start? Then I say X – X as in Marx.”

As the final volume was being completed Per Wahloo was already ill with the cancer that was to kill him shortly after the manuscript was delivered to the publisher. The Terrorists, and indeed the entire Martin Beck series, stands as a fitting and lasting legacy to their writing partnership. It is a series that changed the nature of detective fiction and continues to exert its influence on the genre to this day.

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