Dogged & Determined Detective Work

Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö are the Swedish couple that more than any other authors really defined the police procedural crime novel in their ten book sequence of Martin Beck novels, of which Roseanna is the first.  Writing in the mid-1960s onwards and influenced by Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels (which I’ve still yet to read), they were determined to illustrate real Swedish life in their novels.  In real life, crimes are not usually solved in a matter of days or even a couple of weeks; in real life the search for evidence is a painstaking business – things rarely come together as neatly as pictured in most crime novels.

This might make it seem rather boring, but by chronicling the more mundane parts of a police detective’s role they do make it seem real, and what’s more they really breathe life into their characters who are strongly drawn. Martin Beck (he’s rarely referred to as just Martin) is approaching middle age, henpecked at home and a rather absent type of father. He also has a nervous stomach that reacts badly to the endless coffees it is subjected to and smokes too much.  He’s diligent, eager almost, to escape having to go home and brave the awful subway.

When the body of a young woman is pulled out of a lock on the river, the local police call in the National Homicide Bureau and Martin Beck has a new case to occupy his mind.   At first they find it impossible to identify the body – no-one has reported her missing; it’s definitely murder though, she was violently assaulted before she died.

It is some time before it becomes clear that she is a foreigner who was on one of the river-cruises that ply the area, and it must have been someone on board the boat that did it.  Here, over weeks and months, the detectives ply away doggedly at tracking down the passengers and crew to get their recollections of the murdered girl. Eventually they will get their man in a thrilling finish,  but it takes an awful lot of hard work to get there.

Opening with a long and detailed description of a dredger maneuvering  into position to do some work at the locks, this book took a while to get into.  However once we’d met Martin Beck and his team, they were easy to warm to and I began to enjoy the book thoroughly. A pleasant surprise was that all the policemen were human and largely unstereotyped – no shouty super who’d been promoted above his station here.  They got on with their jobs and seemed fulfilled by their work.

Much is always made of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s communism, and their intention with this decalogue of novels to expose the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society, which to us was always made out to be very hip and liberal during that period.  This edition of the book is introduced by Henning Mankell who has been very influenced by the series, and also has an interview with Maj Sjöwall at the end too – both of these are interesting extras that are well worth reading.

While each book in the series stands alone as a crime novel, there is character progression which goes right from the start so I’m told, so this is a series which is best to start at the beginning.  In summary, a slightly slow start, but a good introduction to the characters and times.  (7.5/10)

I’m looking forward to the subsequent volumes – The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) is next.  This was one of my Mum’s books.

To buy from Amazon, click below:
The Martin Beck series – Roseanna
The Martin Beck series – The Man Who Went Up in Smoke
Cop Hater (Crime Essentials) by Ed McBain – the 1st 87th Precinct novel (1956)


8 thoughts on “Dogged & Determined Detective Work

    • These are the books that sparked off the whole Scandicrime scene. They were conceived as a whole according to my background reading – published over ten years 1956-75 Wahloo died just before the last one was finished.

      The Book People were doing a set of the ten books for a tenner – don’t know if that deal is still on …

  1. I picked up the first four in the series at a charity shop and they have been sitting on a shelf waiting for the right time, which since I am embarked on my reading from the TBR mountain range could well be soon (1st of Feb and I still haven’t bought a book in 2011 which has to be a record for me!)
    I think that you have a treat in store when you finally get around to reading Ed McBain – he is the supreme American police procedural and with a long series you really get to know the characters!

    • Liz – I’ve promoted Cop Hater the first 87th precinct novel to near the top of the pile. Looking forward to that hugely.

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