Inspector Martin Beck, 1-3

August 1, 2011

My wife is a fan of mysteries so naturally I like to give her a mystery novel now and then as a gift. Unfortunately, she finishes mystery novels at about the same rate as I finish the morning funnies so satisfying her appetite for new reading material is problematic.

A solution of a sort came my way a little over a year ago.

I was driving home one night in April 2010, listening to a book review on Fresh Air that said, ‘before there was Stieg Larsson, Swedish detective novels were dominated by Sjowall and Wahloo.’ A good start, but my ears really perked up when I heard, ‘they wrote 10 novels about the crime-solving exploits of Inspector Martin Beck.’

A series of 10 Swedish mystery novels! The answer to my prayers. I could buy all 10 and then dole them out to my wife each month as gifts. My gift-giving would run itself for nearly a full year. So that’s just what I did. Month by month, a new book would land on her pillow, and within a few days, she would chomp through it and add the finished book to her growing stack. And as the stack grew, she began to tell her friends about this great series, so I naturally grew curious …

I’ve spent the past month reading the first three books: Roseanne, The  Man Who Went Up in Smoke, and The Man on the Balcony. They are ‘police procedurals’. I’m not familiar with this term, but I guess it means the story follows the police around as they work on the case. More or less.

Roseanne concerns a murdered girl who gets sucked up from the bottom of a lake by a dredging boat. Just identifying her takes months (and chapters) of police work. Time grinds exceedingly slowly, and, like the Swedish weather, Inspector Beck shifts between from one gray state to another. By turns he is morose, irritable, unhappy, depressed, and so on. He feels a little better when he has a case to chew on, but he spends so much of his time feeling inadequate, that working on a case hardly improves things. On top of this, a number of other things – food, drink, subway rides – compound his misery by making him physically ill. It isn’t a pleasant picture.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke gives Beck a male victim, a name for the victim, and a deadline for solving the crime, but Beck is disarmed in every other respect. There’s no apparent motive, no apparent suspect (or type of suspect), and there’s no body. The ‘victim’ seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth (the book’s title refers to the cliche for how the victim has disappeared, or so it appears until the end of the book). In fact, I had trouble figuring out how Beck ever caught on to what happened so I’m currently re-reading the last 50 pages. On the brighter side, Beck’s physical and emotional problems seem to have improved since the first book.

The Man On the Balcony is another type of book altogether. The book starts off ominously with a man on a balcony paying, it would seem, altogether too much attention to a little girl on the street below. When the girl turns up murdered in a park a few pages later, you can’t help but feel that the man is somehow responsible. So we have a victim, a possible suspect, and even some of the details of the crime, handed to us in just a few pages. The rest of the book turns on the ability (or one should say, the ‘inability’) of the police to tighten the net around the suspect before he strikes again. This leads to a much faster-paced story than those in the first two books. It also opens the door for the first time for sideways glances at the strengths and weaknesses of Swedish society.

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3 Responses to “Inspector Martin Beck, 1-3”

  1. […] Laughing Policeman gives a new twist to the Martin Beck series. The book opens with an antiwar demonstration and a mass murder aboard a double-decker bus. Of […]

  2. […] Martin Beck before him, it takes Kurt Wallander just two books before he is required to travel abroad to solve […]

  3. bassinets said

    constantly i used to read smaller articles or reviews which also clear
    their motive, and that is also happening with this post which I
    am reading at this time.

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