A couple of decades ago, I purchased a complete set of the Martin Beck novels by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The editions I owned were mass-market paperbacks, first published in the U.S. by Vintage in the 1970s. They have remained in my collection ever since, even through several moves. I had always intended to reread them someday.
With everything going on in the world right now, it seemed like a good time to revisit the Stockholm of 50 years ago, so I picked up the first book in the series, Roseanna. I turned to the first page, and was immediately struck by how tiny the font size was. Combined with the brittle yellow pages, I found it almost impossible to read. Cheap paperbacks were not made to last; however, living in the modern era has some advantages, as I was able to promptly download the Kindle edition (thanks, Libby)! The ongoing popularity of the series has ensured that it has remained available; a handsome set of trade paperbacks is now available from Penguin Random House, and each book now features an introduction by a well-known writer. Henning Mankell, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly, Colin Dexter and Jonathan Franzen are among those who contributed essays.
Roseanna introduces readers to Martin Beck, the Everyman homicide inspector who plugs away at his job (he often finds a lot to complain about, too). He seems to live on a diet of cheese sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes, and has found the silver lining in all the nights he has to work—it means he has to spend less time with his wife, Inga.
In Roseanna, Beck is dispatched to the town of Motala after the body of a young woman is dredged from a lake. At first, the focus of the investigation is determining the woman’s identity; no one seems to have reported her missing, and she was naked, so there was no ID on her. Once they finally learn who she is, the police attempt a rather risky stunt in a last-ditch effort to find out who killed her.
The emphasis in Roseanna is how plodding policework done over a lengthy period is sometimes required in order to solve a crime; Beck finds himself slightly obsessed. He encounters a very different case in book #2, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke. Beck’s family vacation in the Stockholm archipelago is interrupted when he has to return to the city and then fly to Budapest to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist who traveled there on assignment.
“It seemed to [Beck] quite ridiculous that he should be gadding about Budapest trying to find a person to whom he was completely indifferent. He could not remember ever being given such a hopeless, meaningless assignment.” The contrast with Roseanna, which saw Beck completely wrapped up in his investigation, is clear.
The Hungarian job is by its nature pretty much a one-man show, since Beck is working far away from his colleagues and for various reasons is not supposed to be in contact with the local police. The third novel, The Man on the Balcony, depicts an all-out effort by the entire Stockholm police force to discover who is killing young girls in the city’s parks. (According to the introduction by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, it is based on a real 1963 case.) This book also introduces us to Kristiansson and Kvant, the two patrolmen who function as a bit of comic relief in several books in the series.
I wouldn’t say the books are hilarious, but there are some chuckles to be had. (In an interview, Maj Sjöwall said that she often “tried to make [her late co-writer Per Wahlöö] laugh” as they were writing the novels.) Having watched Swedish state TV myself, an anecdote in Roseanna about a documentary airing while Beck is interviewing a witness—”[he] looked with despair at the television screen which was now showing a program that must have been at least one month old about picking beets in southern Sweden”—struck me as quite funny.
The books are obviously dated; in one novel, the death of an American tourist requires Beck to get in touch with a police officer in the U.S., which he must do either by staticky long-distance call or by sending a letter. And when a suspect is being tailed, the policeman following him has to check in by making calls at public phone booths.
In the 1960s, of course, Sweden was frequently thought of as a libertine’s paradise, thanks to the export of notorious films like “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and Swedish erotica magazines. Each of the first three Beck books features at least one sexually voracious female character. (“Ari is a nymphomaniac. There’s not much you can do about it,” one man matter-of-factly explains to Beck in The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.) From my vantage point in 2018, I’m not sure if the authors were leaning into the stereotype for the titillation of their readers, or if they were influenced by femme fatale characters in detective novels and films.
However, I’m pleased to report that the series still holds up beautifully, thanks to the authors’ solid plotting and well-drawn characters. I look forward to diving into the next seven books.