Why would a pair of Communist Party members choose to write a book with a policeman as protagonist? Maj Sjöwall has explained that she and Per Wahlöö began writing a series of crime novels because “we wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they’d only sold 300 copies. We realized that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality.”
In The Abominable Man, Sjöwall (who now says she identifies as a Socialist) and the late Wahlöö for the first time in their series present a truly unflinching look at what happens to a society when the police are allowed to basically get away with anything. The novel, which was originally published in 1971, will seem eerily timely to anyone who’s aware of the many well-known cases here in the U.S. where police have not been held accountable for killing civilians. After a police captain is murdered in a particularly grisly fashion, Martin Beck and a colleague sift through a stack of complaints alleging police brutality that had been submitted to Stockholm’s Justice Department Ombudsman. All of them yielded the same results: “Inspector Nyman dismisses the suggestion that he or anyone else mistreated the complainant… No action.”
If one of those complainants decided to take matters into their own hands and enact some vigilante justice, there are a lot of suspects to choose from, since Nyman was known to be a violent bully. Martin Beck’s friend and fellow policeman Kollberg, who knew Nyman when they both served in the army, tells Beck that “he’s probably committed hundreds of outrages of one kind or another. Toward subordinates and toward arrestees. I’ve heard various stories over the years… A man like Nyman always sees to it that there are policemen ready to take an oath that he hasn’t done anything… the kind of men who are already so indoctrinated they figure they’re only doing what loyalty demands.”
Kollberg, who refuses to carry a gun, has already begun to express doubts about continuing to serve on the force, but Martin Beck finds himself confronting certain truths about his job for the first time in this book. A report on the comparative dangers of police work versus other professions revealed that “police work wasn’t a bit more dangerous than any other profession… The number of injured policeman was negligible when compared with the number of people annually mistreated by the police.” (Construction workers, lumberjacks and taxi drivers are all jobs cited by the authors, and almost 50 years later, statistics bear out that people who work in those professions are still in more danger of dying on the job than police.)
Lest you fear that The Abominable Man is a dull bit of leftist anti-police propaganda, be assured that it’s one of the most pulse-pounding entries in the series, climaxing with a thrilling confrontation with an armed and dangerous man intent on revenge. And the authors don’t shy away from describing the loneliness, long hours and threats from hostile members of the public that police officers confront. Sjöwall and Wahlöö always wrote with great compassion about police and civilians alike.
The Locked Room continues the authors’ critique of Swedish society and the police force, as well as presenting a pair of “impossible” mysteries that hearken back to the Golden Age: a locked-room murder and a bank robbery where the witnesses’ accounts are all completely different. Martin Beck is back on the job after taking some time off to recover from injuries sustained in The Abominable Man. He now suffers from recurring nightmares and has been told by his doctors to quit smoking (the horror!). The mysterious death of Karl Svärd—”a most interesting case,” says Kollberg—is presented to Beck as something he can mull over in his spare time. Svärd was found dead in his apartment, with the windows shut and numerous bolts and locks secured from the inside; it took overwhelming force for the police to gain access. He had been shot, so one would think it was a suicide, but no gun was found on the premises.
The other case involves a bank robbery where a customer was murdered by the gun-wielding perpetrator during the course of the crime. Witnesses say the robber was definitely a woman—unless it was a man in a wig. And she definitely escaped in a car—unless she got away on foot. The police have very little to go on, and meanwhile, Stockholm banks are under siege. “A year ago there had been a drive against people passing bad checks… The National Police Board objected to checks being accepted as legal tender,” and the resulting influx of cash led to bank robberies, muggings and assaults. (It’s true that Sweden got rid of personal checks many years ago, but now they’ve gotten rid of cash, too.)
The Locked Room is one of the longer books in the series and it’s pretty heavy on the anti-capitalist and anti-police rhetoric. Also, it seems like most of the Martin Beck books contain at least one reference to poor pensioners having to eat cat food to get by. Was this ever really a thing? I don’t doubt that there are still struggling seniors in Sweden, but my research into this (i.e. 10 minutes of Googling variations on pensionärer + kattmat) seems to indicate that it was something of a myth.
As always, things are changing in Stockholm, and not for the better; the new National Police Board building is under construction, and “from this ultramodern colossus… the police would extend their tentacles in every direction and hold the dispirited citizens of Sweden in an iron grip. At least some of them. After all, they couldn’t all emigrate or commit suicide.” But as the two investigations progress, some unexpected rays of sunshine emerge in Martin Beck’s life, providing an unexpected tinge of optimism as we head into the final two books of the series. Will Sjöwall and Wahlöö give their protagonist a few hard-won moments of joy? Considering that the title of the next book is Cop Killer, I’m not holding my breath.