“The Laughing Policeman” and “The Fire Engine That Disappeared” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Laughing PolicemanThis week, I continued my reread of the Martin Beck series (here’s part one, covering the first three books). My book group had read The Laughing Policeman a few years back, so this was actually my third time reading it. Did that mean I remembered the solution to the crime? I did not. However, it’s a pretty complex case.

A Stockholm city bus is discovered with everyone aboard, including the driver, shot to death (except for one passenger, clinging to life). Among the slaughtered: one of the homicide squad’s own, Åke Stenström. He was found to be holding his service weapon.

What was Åke doing on the bus? No one on the force has a clue whether it’s a coincidence or if he was investigating something unknown to his colleagues. It takes a long time to unravel the solution. Along the way, another case comes to light, involving a murdered woman named Teresa. She was a “strict Catholic… the most moral person imaginable” who was seduced (I believe the 2018 term would be “sexually assaulted”) by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer; this experience turned her into a nymphomaniac (“[She] started running about like a bitch in heat”) who subsequently got involved with underworld figures. Honestly, I do enjoy this series, but reading them all in a row definitely makes you aware of the retrograde sexual politics.

The Fire Engine That DisappearedI thought perhaps book #5, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, would be refreshingly nympho-free, until late in the novel when a policeman goes to interview a possible witness. He knocks on her door, and before he can start questioning her, she casually asks him, “Do you want to sleep with me? It’ll be easier to talk afterward.” (Naturally, the policeman takes her up on the offer.) But let’s look at the rest of the book, shall we?

Inspector Gunvald Larsson is staking out a small apartment building when it suddenly bursts into flame. Larsson is not the most popular person on the homicide squad among his fellow officers, but in this case, he acts heroically, managing to save the lives of several residents. Among those who didn’t make it out is Göran Malm, the man the police were shadowing. Since he was dead before the blast, it looks like he had intended to commit suicide; did something go horribly wrong? Or was it murder?

There are some cute moments involving the son of a police officer, whose birthday present, a toy fire engine, has mysteriously gone missing; Martin Beck is very much just one of the ensemble here, though we do get some additional glimpses into his rather dysfunctional family life. This time, he begs off of a weekend family trip because of job demands, but he actually just stays home and drinks cognac and works on his model ship. In the evening, he lies in the bathtub reading a Chandler novel. It may be the happiest we’ve ever seen him; but never fear, soon he’s back on the case, complaining about the polluted Stockholm city air and the overcrowded subway.

“Roseanna,” “The Man Who Went Up In Smoke” and “The Man on the Balcony” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

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.

RoseannaWith 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 Man Who Went Up In SmokeThe 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 Man on the BalconyThe 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.

“The Seagull” by Ann Cleeves

The Seagull by Ann CleevesIs there a readers’ equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me”? Ann Cleeves’ The Seagull is the type of book that’s usually right in my wheelhouse—British police procedural, strong female character—but it took me almost two weeks to get through. I had a lot of distractions, ranging from planning a big trip to hosting an out-of-town guest, and I often found myself unable to concentrate on the words on the page. Instead, I’d turn to my phone and scroll through Twitter or look at Instagram photos of cute hedgehogs. Or I’d pick up a different book, read the first couple pages, and then put it back down.

A few months ago, I first encountered the phrase “reading slump”—”the dreaded moment when the words on the page simply fail to captivate them and when picking up a book feels like a 50 pound weight,” according to Bookish.com. The Internet is full of advice for folks in a slump, ranging from the odd (“ripping pages out of a book you don’t like but happen to own is oddly therapeutic”) to the obvious (“reread an all-time favorite”). Were it not for my self-imposed obligation to post something here each week, I might find myself taking a bit of a break from reading. But let’s hope I pull out of this slump soon, since normally, reading is one of the best parts of my day!

As for The Seagull, this is the eighth book in Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series; my book group was reading it, which is why I didn’t start with the first Vera book (though this feels like the sort of series where the individual novels can stand alone). It is the basis for a popular TV adaptation featuring Brenda Blethyn, who has described Vera as “big, fat and ugly.” The inspector’s appearance is frequently commented upon in the book, to the point where I felt it got a little excessive; one of her underlings notices her Velcro-strapped sandals, which reveal her “filthy” feet: “[he] felt a moment of revulsion.”

Vera is one of those detectives who is married to her job, which she does exceptionally well. In The Seagull, she is dealing with a cold case involving the discovery of two dead bodies which had remained hidden since the 1990s. One is identified right away, but the other is a mystery. Vera must consult a man in prison, John Brace, for information about the crime; Brace was a bent cop who was close friends with Vera’s late father, who frequently associated with shady figures, a group “held together by loyalty and shared secrets, that strange kind of male friendship that seemed more important to those involved than either marriage or family.”

At 400 pages, The Seagull seems a bit overlong, and the web of crimes, both modern-day and long-ago, grows almost too tangled. Apparently the Vera TV episodes each feature a complete case and clock in at a brisk 90 minutes. The story Cleeves tells in The Seagull is a good one, and maybe watching a pared-down version would prove more satisfying than reading the book.

“Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke

Bluebird, BluebirdAs a West Coast liberal, I tend to think of Texas as a foreign land, one I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable in. I have read a lot of very fine books set in Texas, however, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one that captures the Lone Star State in all its contradictions as well as Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird.

A major theme of the novel is a black lawman’s feelings about his home state, one which he loves dearly but is also clear-eyed enough to recognize often provides friendly harbor to racists ranging from genteel bigots to violent white-power gangs, the modern-day equivalent of the KKK. Darren Mathews is a Texas Ranger, a member of the super-elite law enforcement squad tasked with investigating the state’s most serious crimes. (Mathews, of course, is Locke’s fictional creation, but in the real world, the first black ranger wasn’t appointed until 1988, almost 165 years after the group’s founding.) Suspended from the force after he was suspected of interfering in an investigation involving a family friend, Mathews nevertheless heads to the small town of Lark to look into a pair of homicides after he hears about the case from an FBI agent. The first victim was a black man; the second, a white woman.

“Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.”

Mathews at first tries his investigation undercover, but soon has to resort to showing off his badge when he is threatened by local members of Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Of course, Lark also has its own sheriff, and he’s none too pleased to have an interloper in his county, particularly one whose status with the Rangers is on shaky ground. “This is my deal down here,” he tells Mathews. “We know how to take care of our own.”

There were several times when I was pretty sure I knew where the story was going, but Locke always managed to surprise me, never taking the easy or predictable way out. (One example: the carefully-drawn relationship between Mathews, whose wife Lisa has never fully accepted his work with the Rangers, and the first victim’s wife Randie.) Still, I think what I’ll remember most about this book are the passages about the Mathews family’s relationship with their home state, which no doubt feel so authentic because Locke herself is a native Texan:

“The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn’t, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them. It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life… The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself… You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did. But you could also stay and fight.”

“A Whisper of Bones” by Ellen Hart

A Whisper of Bones by Ellen HartI thought I had established a rule that I would not be reviewing books by any of my clients, but according to the About page I set up over two years ago, “I will include a disclaimer with the review if a book is by a client or friend.” So here is my first-ever use of the Client Disclaimer! I set up Ellen Hart’s current website a few years ago, and update it once a year when she has a new book out. She’s not one of those authors who loves tinkering with her website. Still, the book lists are very useful if you want to read her mysteries in order—A Whisper of Bones is #25 in the Jane Lawless series.

Hart was always on my list of “seriously under-appreciated authors” until she won the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award last year. It “represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality.” I hope that prestigious honor has inspired more people to pick up the Lawless novels to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve read all of them, except for maybe two or three of the older ones; this is a series that’s gotten better with age (2005’s The Iron Girl and 2010’s The Cruel Ever After are my favorites).

Jane Lawless is a restaurateur in Minneapolis who eventually gets a side gig as a P.I. due to her success as an amateur sleuth. Her frequent partner in crime is her flamboyant best friend, Cordelia Thorn, who runs a local playhouse. Some readers have criticized Cordelia as being too over-the-top, but I think she’s the perfect foil for the more buttoned-up Jane. Plus, having spent a lot of time around theater people, I know that many of them are larger-than-life characters.

In A Whisper of Bones, Jane is hired by a woman to find her cousin, a childhood playmate whom she lost touch with due to a family feud. When Britt visited her two aunts after years of estrangement, they denied the cousin ever existed. Are they gaslighting her, or trying to hide something horrible?

The aunts run a boardinghouse, and Jane goes undercover and rents a room from them, which is convenient, to be sure. Still, it does put her right in the center of the action when Britt’s nagging questions about the past start having deadly repercussions.

Meanwhile, Jane’s former lover Julia, who has popped in and out of the series for quite a while now, has returned; she has a serious illness, and Jane lets her move into her home. Since their relationship has always been complicated (Julia has been known to play fast and loose with the truth), I am sure this will have continuing repercussions in the next Lawless mystery. Happily, Hart has signed a contract for more books, which is wonderful news for those of us who eagerly await our annual visit with Jane and Cordelia.

“The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins

The MoonstoneA few weeks ago, my friend Vallery suggested I read  The Moonstone (1868), which is considered to be the first full-length detective novel (Edgar Allan Poe wrote some short-story mysteries in the 1840s). “If you have not read The Moonstone then that should be your first book of 2018. My all time favorite. Up there with Sherlock and Marlowe. Reread it recently in a book group and we all agreed that it reads well, and is surprisingly current.”

Well, I had never read The Moonstone, so I checked it out of the library at the end of December, thinking that I would indeed make it my first review of the new year. That obviously didn’t happen, partly because The Moonstone is very long: over 400 pages of small print. Many were the nights I fell asleep reading the novel; I finally downloaded the Kindle version (free!) and finished it while I was on vacation in late January.

This is not to say that The Moonstone isn’t a good book; I just found it a little tough going at times. The novel opens with the theft of the legendary yellow diamond, which was purloined by an English soldier during a battle between Southern Indians and the British East India Company. The soldier—a cruel and rapacious man—dies years later, leaving the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder. She receives it on her eighteenth birthday, and that night, it vanishes from her room in the posh Verinder estate. In an attempt to get at the truth, numerous guests who were present for Rachel’s birthday are asked to write down their personal accounts of what they witnessed.

The first narrator is Gabriel Betteredge, “house-steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder” (Rachel’s mother). Betteredge is a man in his 70s and completely devoted to his employer. He is an astute and often funny narrator, and I found him to be exceedingly good company; his section was my favorite one of the book, and I was a bit disappointed when, after 170 pages, Drusilla Clack took over. (Fortunately, Betteredge does return as an important character later on.) A poor relation of the wealthy Verinder family, Miss Clack is a Christian who feels it is her duty to evangelize to everyone she meets. She is also a faithful member of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society, which rescues “unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent… abridg[es] them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.”

I was curious about whether or not pawning clothes was a common thing, and it turns out that it was! According to this article, in Victorian times, “Clothing was often pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This was the reason that Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days.” Whether anything like the Conversion Society ever existed is hard to say, but I did appreciate Collins’ satire of both Evangelicals and do-gooders. However, Miss Clack’s prose is rather turgid and overly formal, despite the occasional gem (one of her favorite tracts, on “the sinfulness of dress,” is titled “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons”).

After Miss Clack, we hear from Matthew Bruff, the Verinders’ solicitor; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and love interest; Ezra Jennings, assistant to a physician; and Sergeant Cuff, the famous detective called in from London to find the missing diamond. Cuff’s arrival is a big deal (“If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unraveling a mystery, there isn’t the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!” exclaims Franklin Blake), though when he shows up, he seems more interested in the estate’s rose garden than in the crime; it’s not difficult to see Cuff as the prototype for every eccentric detective in the annals of mystery fiction.

Considering that it took me a month of on-and-off reading to finish The Moonstone vs. about four hours to polish off current best-seller The Woman in the Window, I can’t say that I’m eager to jump right back into the world of Victorian fiction. But reading The Moonstone in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised by how sympathetic Collins was to some of the “underdog” characters in the book, like the odd-looking, racially-ambiguous Ezra Jennings, thief-turned-housemaid Rosanna Spearman, and even the Indian men pursuing their lost treasure (intimating that the diamond should have stayed in India rather than be plundered by a greedy, unpleasant Englishman was probably a pretty progressive stance in the 1860s). The prose can be a bit tough going for someone not used to 19th-century novels, but in general, I agree that The Moonstone does hold up and is well worth reading 150 years after its debut.

Note: If you’re not familiar with Collins’ personal life, read this review for a taste of just how unconventional he was.

“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.