Martin Beck Series

I’ve been meaning to blog about the Martin Beck Series since I started reading the first one last year. I blipped about it [] by way of a ‘holding’ comment so apologies for cross-posting and repetition. I could blame eye problems and catching up at work but the fault lies squarely with not sticking to my self-imposed rule of writing up a review or comment straight after finishing a book. Anyhow, below is my attempt to write about the series but I’ve failed to give it the justice it deserves. I think, above all, what stands out the most are the characters. Grumpy, moody, miserable, childish, huffy, mannerly, naive, vulnerable, and utterly appealing, they’re all fixed in my memory as real as if I’d met each of them personally.

This series of crime books are police procedurals set in Sweden; a Decalogue of crime books by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Subtitled, The Story of a Crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out to show that ‘under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed beneath the glossy surface.’ The characters develop from book to book, adopting new characteristics and habits, or deepening collegial relationships. These are tightly plotted police procedurals that follow the investigation from grisly discovery to final solution. Each one is completely different and yet the same. Each one follows the same characters uncovering secrets and following dead-ends, but each too uncovers another aspect of the characters, develops Beck’s personal life, and reveals how Swedish society is sliding away from the welfare ideal.

Each of the books is its own individual story but I probably wouldn’t have read beyond Roseanna if I hadn’t received the first three together from ‘InsideBooks’. Roseanna builds slowly, plodding procedurally from the discovery of a woman’s body to resolution of the crime. Looking back at the first in the series from where I am now with no. 7: The Abominable Man, it takes on a whole new aspect. The characters, the murder squad, their families and relationships are introduced but not fully formed. In fact, they’re not all there yet. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t just about Beck but about his team and the individual characters. Lennart Kollberg, Frederik Melander, Gunnar Ahlberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, and the comic double act of Kristiansson and Kvant, all play important individual and integral roles in various novels in the series. Some, like Beck and Kollberg feature in them all, while others, like Gunvald Larsson aren’t introduced until no. 3. Åke Stenström is an important character, both for his own sake and for introducing his wife to the group.

The setting plays a crucial role in each of the novels, while the period detailing enables Sjöwall and Wahlöö to inject cutting social commentary. For example, mention of a Vientamese tourist in Roseanna is a not too subtle reminder of international politics. Christmas, for the Marxist authors, is like the ‘Black Death’, the consumer ‘epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path… The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere’ (The Laughing Policeman, p. 119).

In discussing how they planned the series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö describe how they wrote the books one at a time, each writing a chapter after the other. Writing one book on your own is hard, so how much planning must have gone into deciding who would write which scene, what to leave out and what to add, when to change a character (as Beck does in no. 6, Murder at the Savoy) without alienating the reader? There’s also the stringent planning and organisation of material; sorting out the intricate details for ten interconnected books is a feat of great ingenuity. The Martin Beck series is, rightly, an acclaimed landmark in European crime fiction. Here’s a link to an interview with Maj Sjöwall inThe Observer, November 2009.

Originally published in Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s, the edition I’m reading through is reprinted by Harper Perennial (2006-07) from English translations (of mixed success, I hate to report), with an introduced to each provided by a contemporary crime writer, such as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Henning Mankell, who introduces the first, Roseanna.

The whole series is highly recommended. I won’t review each book but give a mini introduction to whet your appetite:

Martin Beck Series, No 1: Roseanna (1965)

“On a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from beautiful Lake Vatern”.

The first book of the series is slowly paced but skilfully plotted. The investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Roseanna McGraw stutters from dead-end to dead-end until a final flurry of activity in the closing chapters brings a resolution. In this first book we are introduced to Martin Beck and the team of detectives and to the Swedish landscape and society.

Martin Beck Series, No. 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

Beck travels to Prague to track down a missing journalist. Alone and abroad, he muses on his failing marriage. A moody, broody book that builds Beck’s character.

Martin Beck Series, No. 3, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

An uncomfortable and disconcerting read. Someone is attacking and killing young girls in Stockholm and leaving their bodies in “once-peaceful parks”. No. 3 is when the detective characters begin to gel as a team and Larsson is introduced to upset the balance.  Kristiansson and Kvant bring comic relief to a very dark tale.

Martin Beck Series, No. 4, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Someone murders eight people on a Stockholm bus, including one of Beck’s team. For me, this is where the whole series begins to make sense. If you get this far, read the first one again. What strikes is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s restraint. They hold back so much from the first three which makes the action of the fourth so affecting and effective. Brilliantly done. The Vietnam War looms again in anti-war protests while Beck’s character deepens at the same time as his relationship with Kollberg and Larsson intensifies.

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

Larsson takes centre stage as hero in a house-fire; there’s a double meaning to the Fire Engine and black-marketeering; social injustice and politicalisation of the police add to the mix to give one of the best plotted books of the series. The action moves from Stockholm to Malmö. Incisive social commentary cuts through the fiction:

“Students put on their white caps and trade union leaders get their red flags out from the moth-balls and try to remember the text of Sons of Labour. It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no-one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in amongst the demonstrators.” (pp. 182-83)

Martin Beck Series, No. 6, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Again set between Stockholm and Malmö. The murder of a businessman during his after-dinner speech at an hotel takes Beck and Larsson into an investigation of seedy corruption. We learn more of Larsson’s background, while Beck lightens up. Kristiansson and Kvant are their usual bumbling inept selves – it’s their unprofessional actions that hinder the whole investigation.

Once I complete the series I’ll update here- but do read ahead, you won’t be disappointed in this wonderful crime series.

On Reviewing


Click the image to go to the Blipfoto entry for 15 Jan. 2010

Keeper: Living with Nancy – a journey into Alzheimer’s, by Andrea Gillies (Short Books, 2009) – update

[see HERE for earlier post when it won the inaugural Wellcome Trust Book Prize].

I first read Keeper in the summer. I loved it. It’s a serious book about important issues, written with warmth and compassion. Yet, it was an uphill struggle to find an editor who’d take a review or would mention the book. The main objection seemed to be the ‘small publisher’. Really? Not the writing, the grammar, narrative, style, language, or ideas? 

Literature needs to be taken seriously. Not just posh literary writing for the élite but writing that creates an impact with the reader; that trickles out into society and begins to affect change. I don’t say this lightly, nor as a bookslut, but as someone who champions good writing. Independent publishers, or at least the smaller ones, shouldn’t have to fight to get their books reviewed in the mainstream press. It shouldn’t always be the same few who review books by ”big names’. I know that it’s interesting when ‘A’, who has published X number of successful books brings out another successful book, or even one that flops, but these aren’t the only books published. It seems that way, though, because these ‘big names’ always receive wide-spread attention. 

Keeper deserves attention. It deserves to be in every bookshop. It deserves to be sought after, talked about, discussed on the kind of telly most people watch, not just on the arts programmes. 

Here endeth today’s rant. 

I’ve posted an extract of the review from TLS on the review pages.

On Reviewing

I’ve recently added two reviews – Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler and All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney – to the ‘Reviews’ pages, with links to their online posting in the literary ezine, The Literateur Magazine. Out of these contemporary studies of the modern male, I much preferred Tyler’s wry character-driven story of retired teacher Liam Pennywell’s attempts to reconnect with his family to McIlvanney’s  plot-driven exposé of Scottish religious and political tensions as seen through the eyes of Gerry Conway, a hard-nosed journalist with a soft-centre.

I have to admit my partiality to Tyler’s fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of her books. Although there are gaps, such as The Tin Can Tree, I’ve read everything from A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990) to Digging to America (2006) and consider her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) one of the best books ever written.

This is McIlvanney’s fictional debut but not the first time I’ve come across his work. In my ‘other life’ as academic researcher I’ve read and disagreed with his monologue, Burns the Radical: Politics and Poetry in late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Tuckwell Press, 2002). In my ‘good reads’ review I gave it 3 stars: “McIlvanney’s book is thoroughly researched and well-written. He offers a lively new interpretation of many of Burns’s poems, well-known and the lesser known ones. It’s hard to agree with his views on Scottish contractarianism but that aside it’s a good addition to Burns scholarship.” 

My disagreement, such as it is, is with McIlvanney’s view of presbyterianism, the Enlightenment and how they affected Scottish society and not on his writing style.

Do I still have this in mind, though, when reading his fiction?

I worry whether my preference for Tyler over McIlvanney is down to gender? Would a male reader find the same things to disagree with in both texts?

Enjoy, but approach the reviews with all the above in mind.