Tag Archives: Swedish detective fiction

2011/23 The Troubled Man

We seem to have been waiting a long time for the next Wallander novel, but it has finally arrived in English translation and I devoured it the moment it arrived. It is also a book to be savoured, as it is the final Wallander book – there will not be any more.

For a long time Henning Mankell resisted writing more Wallander novels, saying that he was too distraught following the suicide of Johanna Sallstrom, the young actress who played the role of Linda Wallanader, Kurt Wallander’s daughter, in the Swedish television adaptations. Finally Mankell returned for one final Wallander novel to bring closure to one of the most remarkable series of detective novels in recent years.

The first Wallander novel was published in Sweden in 1991 and first appeared in English translation six years later. In The Troubled Man the usual Wallander themes are evident and the detective is his usual miserable, alcoholic, workaholic and socially dysfunctional self, struggling as much with his personal relationships as with the challenges of the current case. The story revolves around a retired naval officer and future father-in-law of Linda Wallander, who, seemingly preoccupied, disappears one day whilst on a walk. The ensuing investigation inevitably reveals a more complex web of intrigue and scandal. Ostensibly, the missing officer is ‘the troubled man’ of the title, but it is equally clear that Wallander is also a troubled man and, given the background to the writing of the book, it could be said that Mankell himself is also the troubled man.

As with all the Wallander books, this is a fast-paced quick read. I don’t want to give anything away, but I found the ending particularly fitting and poignant. Whilst some may be disappointed by the anti-climatic finish to Wallander’s career, I found his destiny to be particularly appropriate for the melancholic sociophobe, drawn increasingly into himself, that he is. A brave way to end such a fabulous series of books. Now I shall have to start all over again at the beginning with Faceless Killers.

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2011/13 Unknown

 

Still with Scandanavian crime fiction and to the third novel in Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas series. This is a very well constructed traditional police procedural with a strong ‘whodunnit’ feel to it and perhaps the most satisfying read of the series to date for me. I mention its ‘whodunnit’ quality because this so so often a rarity these days in crime fiction and I felt a certain nostalgia in reading this book at its rather charming and old-fashioned feel, which Jungstedt manages so well.

This time Knutas and his team are called in to investigate the murder of an archaeology student. Jungstedt brings together some of the gorier elements of Gotland folklore, along with the island’s Viking history and the fact that archaeology has become a veritable industry and source of income for the island. It is this bringing together of the ancient and the modern that allows Jungstedt to convey something of Gotland’s landscape and culture – certainly more so than in the earlier novels. Gotland is much more a living character itself in this novel, but not just as a pohysical presence – a cultural, historical and psychological one too.

Where Jungstedt has innovated is that there are two heroes in her novels and this becomes stronger in each of the three books so far. As well as Knutas, there is also the journalist Johan Berg – so two heroes, pitched against each other, but both on the same side, as it were. The tension and rivalry between Knutas and Berg is nicely set up by Jungstedt and looks set to play an increasingly important role in future novels.

 

 

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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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Cop Killer

Cop Killer is the nineth and penultimate novel in the Martin Beck series and again concentrates not on one, but on two separate cases, seemingly unconnected, but which become connected in the manner in which they are played out. The first of these cases concerns the brutal sexual murder of a young woman in a remore rural location, where by coincidence, the man convicted of the Roseanna muder in the first Martin Beck novel, now resides, after having been released from prison. Inevitably he falls under suspicion. It draws our attention inevitably that all the novels in the series are intended to be read as ten separate episodes in one larger novel. The second case concerns an incident where a policeman is shot and killed by a pair of desparate, teenage petty thieves in Stockholm. The two crimes stand in contrast to each other, in terms of location and premeditation, as well as the social milieus (bougeois and working-class) they inhabit.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the introduction of the character of Herrgott Allwright, the rural police officer in charge of the rural murder investigation until Beck arrives on the scene. Allwright, a rural police officer, represents everything that policing in Stockholm is not. He is a sympathetic character who polices honestly and sensitively in the interests of the community – an idealistic portrayal of what policing ought to be about in a liberal democracy and the kind of policeman that Beck would like to be if he had the chance. In contrast stands Lennaret Kollberg, Beck’s partner in Stockholm who, dislliusioned with what policing has become, is contemplating resigning from the force. And herein lies the usual ambiguity in the title. Whilst at face value the title may refer to the tennagers who in the heat of the moment shoot a policeman in the second of the crimes, it is really not a single police officer, but the whole concept of policing by consent that is the victim, represented by Kollberg, and the killer is society in general. As in The Locked Room, Cop Killer abounds with witty and outspoken social criticism.

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The Abominable Man

And so to the seventh in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The story begins with the murder, with a bayonet, of a senior police officer convalescing in hospital and leads to a killing spree (culminating in a bloody climax) aimed at the police force, against whom the killer appears to hold a grudge. This is arguably the most persistently violent of the Beck novels so far, but as the novel progresses what is exposed is a history of police corruption, violence and victimisation at the centre orf which is the initial victim. Indeed as the the violence increases, so does our sympathy with the killer as we come to understand him as a victim of a greater injustice. Once again Sjowall and Wahloo use the detective novel form to raise questions about the nature of justice, guilt and blame. Ironically,  it is not the killer who is shown to be abominable – he is simply to be pitied – but the initial victim and his cronies who are the true abominable men.

Disappointingly, this is the first book in the series that is published without an introduction by a modern crime writer. A little bit of a shame, I suppose.

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Murder at the Savoy

And so into the second half of the Martin Beck series with No. 6, Murder at the Savoy. Again this is a deeply political book, telling the story of a rich industrialist who gets murdered whilst hosting an expensive dinner for his sycophantic entourage at the Savoy Hotel. As the investigation unravels the history of the industrialists appalling and arrogant behaviour, the reader, along with Martin Beck, begins to feel sympathy for the killer, rather than the victim. And in doing so, Sjowall and Wahloo ask us to question the very nature of crime itself. It reminded me of the line in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, which asks who is the greater criminal, the bank robber or the banker? I forget the exact quotation, but it seems particularly pertinent for our times. In his introduction critic Michael Carlson also reminds us of that the original title of the book in Swedish is Polis, polis, potatismos (literally, police, police, mashed potato), a play on the slogan chanted at police by young revolutionaries in the sixties, ‘polis, polis, potatisgris’, translated as ‘police, police, potato pig’. In Sweden, as elsewhere, ‘pig’ is used as a derogatory term for the police, especially by young activists. If you’re wondering about the relevance of the mashed potato, it is a plate of it that the dying industrialist collapses into after he has been shot. As with all the books in this series, the social comment and the serious and tragic subject matter is always balanced with moments of deliciously low comedy.

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The Laughing Policeman

With an introduction by Sean and Nicci French (another husband and wife crime-writing partnership), The Laughing Policeman is the fourth in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. In many ways it is the most socially critical and effective so far, dealing with corruption, cyncism and murky dealings in the world of business and the Stockholm underworld. The laugh referred to in the title is not a joyous laugh, but one of worldweariness, tragic irony and realisation of the imperfection of society, only made clear in the very last sentence of the book. Starting with the mass murder of several people during a shooting incident on a bus, including an off-duty detective, one of Beck’s colleagues, it soon becomes a story concerning sordid secrets from the past. This the most carefully and satisfyingly plotted novel of the series so far.

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