As you may be aware, I started reading Scandinavian thrillers a few years ago. I haven't read them all yet. But I have just finished reading the Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo.
The first point about the 10 Martin Beck books is that they were written between 1965 and 1975. They are not period pieces though. They were written as a contemporary commentary on life and attitudes in Sweden. As such, they do not constantly draw in references to remind you of the time, as a later novel might. You might find some views archaic, and you might for example find it odd that the police can't pick up their mobile telephones to call each other or search out details from the computerised crime datebase, but personally I soon forgot these quirks (perhaps it's a sign of my age) and they didn't detract in any way from my enjoyment of the stories
The second point is that Sjowall and Wahloo had decided to write a scathing critique of contemporary Sweden through the artifice of a series of crime novels and to put all the opinions of the way Swedish society was going into the mouths of the novels' characters. If you remember (or maybe it's still true), Sweden had an image in the 60s of a modern, clean lifestyle with smörgåsbord, minimalist designer furniture and a population full of blonde, sexy girls (or boys maybe). You might therefore be disappointed to read of stinking, litter-strewn canals and young people living on the streets, taking drugs and falling under the welfare radar, and maybe some readers were disappointed at the time, especially as the first novels were published at the time of the Summer of Love and Flower Power (although of course Punk was looming . . .). But one has to assume that this was the Sweden behind the PR and travel posters. And it didn't sound any worse than any other country to me. But it did provide a more realistic setting in which the various crimes take place!
There has been much written about the Marxist leanings of the authors. But one should also accept that, until this time, no one had produced quite such an exposé of real life in this model country. Scandinavian novels since have introduced characters who live in the world of luxury and privilege and who show themselves to be immune to and ignorant of the exigencies faced by Sjowall and Wahloo's characters. There is something of that here too and an incomprehension even among the police at how society is developing. Maybe it took a Marxist to see what was happening. But I didn't read these books as a political tract, though it is true that you can detect a certain jaundiced view of society and often a strong sympathy with the criminals, themselves victims of the system. They were just great detective novels. They were much more enjoyable to read than anything I’ve read by Marx anyway!
It is true too that little touches of humour sparkle in the midst of the grim, dark Nordic life we are now familiar with from other authors. I found myself frequently smiling or snorting with amusement, as I imagined these policemen going about their understaffed, underpaid, overworked business, sometimes more Police Squad than Crime Squad.
These are not long books; it was unusual then to write novels of the modern length, but they are complex and full of detail, as well as sparingly written. We really get to know all the characters – those that are diligent, those that aren't, those that have foibles or character flaws, those that have happy home lives that compete with the awful scenes policemen have to endure, the one with the with red noses or the large stomach. And the books are of course a series, during which each one of the main characters develops and progresses. You are as keen to know for example whether one policeman decides to leave the force in the end as you are to know whether he solves the current crime. And the stories themselves are realistic - they don't rely on superhuman detective skills, or on some chance mistake by the criminal. In fact the investigations often come to a dead end with no lines of inquiry left to pursue, before laborious reviews throw up new lines of inquiry.
And the third point, which is important to remember and which was what interested me, is that this series was the first entirely police procedural novel in the world. Here is what has become the archetypical police detective – assiduous, dedicated, unremitting and conscientious in his pursuit of justice; honest within a corrupt system; problems in his private life, but with fascinating hobbies and personal interests; melancholy and at times irascible, but much loved and respected by his team colleagues. But he is also one who is as much an active part of that team of colleagues as he is its leader. And he solves his crimes by sheer hard work and persistent deskwork and legwork.
So these are the novels which inspired Nesbo, Larsson and Mankell (literally), but also Ed McBain, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and many other police and detective crime novelists. Each of the ten books (under the most recent reprinting) indeed contains a forward by one of the famous crime writers of today, explaining Martin Beck's place in the genre. Thanks to these later writers, you might find something rather familiar about life amongst this group of policemen and detectives. But again I remind you when these were written.
There were police novels before this and there were detective/crime novels long before. But I think that the first of this series was the first book to focus on the characters, their interaction, their daily lives and the detail of the search for the culprits, rather than just the crime and the solution. And, unlike so many novels today, the reader doesn't have inside knowledge. I am sometimes annoyed to read a chapter here and there from the point of view of the criminal, or detailing some of the criminal’s background as an explanation of his/her motives. Why don't the police do this or ask that, I always think, because we've already been told who dunnit. I liked the way the culprit was eventually found here though, through committed police work, and I feel the excitement and disappointments of the chase and then the odd anticlimax at the end as the book just ends. You come to realise that the lives and tasks of Martin Beck and his friends and colleagues are the story. The plot is well-conceived and sufficiently puzzling to hold your attention, but, as with many thrillers now, it is not the be all and end all of the books.
Crime novels before this were just so different. There is no Poirot here, or Sherlock Holmes or Columbo. There is no central figure to marvel at and admire. Martin Beck himself hardly appears in one book and the team is usually very much the key to the solution. And nor is there a half-witted foil to the brilliant detective; Beck often praises his colleagues as having special skills that he lacks in certain areas. And nor is there a dramatic explanation of the clever deductions by which the crime is solved in an explosive, impressive climax. The team members often state themselves to be completely baffled by what's going on, but procedures are followed and in due course the police wind everything up. You end up desperate to know what they do next.
I was so pleased that my local library had just bought this set. I was therefore able to read them in order, which was definitely the way to do it. But, now I am left with a strong sense of loss. Why did they only write 10 in the series? I so want to know what became of these very real characters. I miss them all.
I'm not going to spoil the fun by saying too much about the plots. But let me just say that they are both fairly 'normal' and topical. There is none of the incomprehensible horror of the Wallander crimes. There are crooked business dealings, child killings, police deaths, terrorist incidents, and the murder of a President – all reminiscent of some of the major crimes of the time. This was the period of Woodstock, LSD, the moon landings and the election of Indira Ghandi and Golda Meir; but it was also after all the time of Cathy Come Home, the rise of heroine, rife police corruption, the Moors murders, the activities of the Baader-Mainhof group and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. All this fits with the stories of Martin Beck and colours the atmosphere within which the crimes take place and where the police grapple with their investigations.
I loved them. I think you will too.