Scandi Noir’s been around for longer than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Long before Stieg Larsson, there was Henning Mankell. (I’m of the Mankell generation myself.) And before Mankell, there was … well, let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, a man and wife, both established writers in their native Sweden, decided that they would write something together – it would keep them occupied in the evenings when the kids were sleeping. They set about writing not just a crime novel, but a series of 10 books, which together would read like a single book. The writers were, of course, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö; their Martin Beck series destined to become part of literary history.
According to my catalogued procurement dates (isn’t Librarything a wonder?), the set landed on my book shelves in 2009. Maj Sjöwall appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013, but it took the 2019 #1965club for me to pick up the first in the series. So well done, Kaggsy and Simon, for the prompt.
Roseanna, translated from Swedish by Lois Roth in 1968, first appeared in 1965. Police techniques – and crime novels – have changed much since then, but this was no detriment to the reading experience. If anything, I’d say that the outdated techniques and lack of profanity actually enhanced it! There doesn’t seem much challenge in having all the information you need at the click of a button, or having whomever you wish to speak to on speed dial. Martin Beck and his team have neither internet, mobile phones, nor DNA profiling at their disposal. So their investigation into the death of an woman, whose naked body is dredged out of a canal, is a procedural slog.
Entirely as Sjöwall and Wahlöö intended. Their aim, not to glamorise the murder investigation, but to show the job in its reality. Long hours, often with no progress, even less sleep, tense home relationships. No one knows how long the body has been in the water, there are no missing person reports. A connection is eventually established to a cruise ship, though again no there are no reports of a missing passenger. The passenger list, though, was international and so foreign forces are contacted. Eventually the police from Nevada USA report a missing woman whose appearance matches that of the corpse. The American detective’s name is Kafka ….
It’s quite surreal when you think about it that he is the biggest break Beck and his team receive. Yes, I loved that. And the time lapse, drag, call it what you will. There are frequently two weeks between chapters, the seasons are changing. A case that always threatens to turn cold, begins in summer, progresses through autumn, into winter, beyond Christmas and into the New Year. Despite the wish to keep the plot based in reality, the authors were demonstrating their literary credentials. Nor were they afraid of grit, even if the nature of the crime and some of the character statements regarding the murdered woman will have shocked more in 1965 than they do now. Nor would readers in the 1960s have noted a lack of detailed forensic gruesomeness. Again though that lack was a plus for me. I have my own imagination. Sometimes a prompt suffices.
Martin Beck has a team, though in Roseanna the focus is very much on him. (I suspect this will be otherwise in subsequent episodes.) So we learn of his unhappiness with his wife (not a bad woman, but she smothers him), his undoubted investigative abilities, his intuition. The latter more important back in the day, I would imagine, particularly if a short cut is to be found while sifting through the hundreds of photographs taken by all and sundry on the cruise. Not that he is that good, but he does recognise a murderer when he sees one. Whether or not the methods use to trap the killer would be acceptable in court nowadays is a moot point …
If this first book is anything to go by, there’s good reason why this series is now legendary. It’s not going to take me 10 years to pick up the second.