Saturday, 22 March 2014

Martin Beck 1 & 2 - Roseanna / The Man Who Went Up In Smoke

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who have left their stamp on Scandinavian writing.
Martin Beck 1 & 2 - Roseanna & The Man Who Went Up In Smoke - Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

Here, or elsewhere I made the statement that I'd immerse myself in crime for a portion of the year. I thought that reading a ten book series would be a good way to make good on that promise. Unfortunately I still have to find book three, four and ten so for the now I'll write up some thoughts on the first two books in the Martin Beck series, often blamed for the wave of Nordic noir that has descended upon us over the last number of years.

The ten books in the Martin Beck series were written between 1965 and 1975 and are known collectively as The Story of a Crime. This suggests that there is a unity of purpose about all ten books in a more pronounced way that is usual in a series like this. The first two books certainly create a really sharp sense of the social milieu in which Beck and his fellow policemen work, for these are very much police procedurals.

Martin Beck, the lead character seems like a character shipwrecked on his own awareness of the seam of crime that runs through the world. He listens and waits for the snapping twig in the undergrowth that will give away the presence of his prey. The policemen in a way remind me of Eliot's Hollow Men, caught waiting between the here and now, lost somehow in the interregnum.

"We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;"
(from T.S. Eliot; The Hollow Men)

Cases become all consuming for Beck and he lives, eats and dreams them, to the detriment of his marriage and family life. He reads and rereads case notes, has doors knocked on and lists checked and rechecked. Time and stubbornness and the whole of his awareness are what he brings to his work. This is not something that easily sits in a life. In The Man Who Went Up in Smoke he meets a Hungarian counterpart and they have a shared sense of their profession:
"'Being a policeman,' said Szluka, 'is not a profession. And it's certainly not a vocation either. It's a curse.'"

A body is found in a canal in Motala, a town hallways between Gothenburg and Stockholm. The body is unidentified and there are no reports of a missing person who matches the description. Faint leads go nowhere and after an initial flurry the number of man hours dedicated to solving the murder are cut back. There is a huge amount of process to be gone through from knocking on doors to negotiating the politics of getting dredgers to search the canal bed. They spend a night searching for a suspect who had been picked up two nights previously somewhere else. But the policemen who saw what was done to the body are determined to find the killer, no matter how long it takes. When leaving Beck has a meal with the local detective, Ahlberg and these words pas between them:
"'Are you planning to let this one go now?'
'No', replied Martin Beck.
"I'm not either,' said Ahlberg. 'Never'"

Beck's two closest colleagues are also not the type to let things go. When watching seagulls circling the dredger  Beck is reminded of them: "Their (the seagulls) powers of observation and their patience were admirable, as was their staying power and optimism. They reminded Martin Beck of Kollberg and Melander."

We also build up a picture of Beck's health and marriage. He is dyspeptic and it is clear that his dedication to his job has taken a toll on family life. There are hints that his marriage may not endure in the long term- "He looked at the empty cup with its blue rose pattern and a chip in the rim and a brown crack down from the notch. That cup had hung on for almost the duration of their marriage. More than ten years. She rarely broke anything, in any case not irreparably."

We see that part of his dedication to his job is an avoidance of his family life and that his wife sees him as much as her patient as her husband. "First of all he had fled from the suffocating care that would have enveloped him had he remained in bed. Since the children had begun to grow up, Martin Beck's wife had adopted the role of home nurse with bubbling eagerness and an almost manic determination. For her, his repeated bouts of cold and flu were on a par with birthdays and major holidays."

The plot and the sensational event at the heart of the story never seem to disturb the calmly observant style of the writing. A sheriff named Kafka from Nebraska becomes involved and there is a clear sense of kinship between the policemen, even in the few phone calls and telegrams that pass between them.

Waiting, reliance on others, process, luck, boredom and stubbornness all contribute to the eventual solving of the case. The architecture of the novel is impressive and I was not left feeling that there were frayed or loose ends but it was the picture of real life, full of taste and texture and told unfussily and economically that most impressed.

I could sense myself becoming hooked.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

The Man Who Went Up In Smoke builds on Roseanna, filling out the picture of Beck's marriage and colleagues. Beck is called away from his family holiday to take on a case in Budapest. He could have said no but he didn't.

A man, a journalist, seems to have disappeared into thin air in Budapest. This gives Sjöwall and Wahlöö an opportunity to use their intimate knowledge of journalism, a profession they had both followed and also to play with the Cold War paranoia of all that lay behind the Iron Curtain.

Before heading to Budapest Beck tries to find as much as he can about the character, acquaintances and movements of the missing journalist, Alf Matsson. In Sweden he has his colleagues and the law behind him but in Budapest he is flying without wings and any action he takes could easily put him on the wrong side of the criminal/legitimate divide.

This means that once again the book focuses on many moments of inactivity, on the act of waiting, often in those altars to the act of losing time, hotel rooms. Indeed there are times when Beck is little more than a tourist and Budapest seems a very intriguing place to be a tourist, adrift in time.
"That was the famous Buda side, then, and there you were very close to the heart of centralEuropean culture. Martin Beck let his glance roam over the panoramic view, absently listening to the wingbeats of history. There the Romans had founded their mighty settlement Aquincum, from there the Hapsburg artillery had shot Pest into ruins during the war of Liberation of 1849, and there Szalasis' fascists and Lieutenant General Pfeffer-Wildenbruch's SS troops had stayed for a whole month during the spring of 1945, with a meaningless heroism that invited annihilation(old fascists he had met in Sweden still spoke of it with pride)."

But this case does not take anything like the length of time to solve that Roseanna did and Beck is free again before his two week holiday is over. This, while not quite as satisfying as Roseanna, raised my desire to read the whole series and I am now seeking books 3 & 4 so I can continue to do so.


  1. To be honest I wasn't crazy about Roseanna. perhaps it was the translation but the book kept referring to the victim's "big box" which was a weirdly distracting way of putting it.

    1. You've just got to think outside the box : )

    2. See Guy's review here - http://swiftlytiltingplanet.wordpress.com/2009/06/21/roseanna-by-maj-siowall-per-wahloo/ for another opinion.

  2. I've read just over half the series so far (one out of sequence) and am looking forward to Murder at the Savoy sometime soon. I find the "mundane" details and ebb and flow to the novels so much more satisfying than the fake, extremely farfetched "thrillers" that have replaced these old school police procedurals in modern days. Good luck tracking down your missing volumes.

    1. Thanks Richard. Hopefully with time and my powers of observation they will soon turn up...