Monday, March 28, 2011

The Terrorists, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
280 pp
translated by Joan Tate
originally published 1975 as Terroristerna

The Terrorists is the tenth and final book in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's series featuring Martin Beck. In this installment, an unpopular American senator has planned a visit to Sweden, and Beck is chosen as head of the security team for the duration. The biggest worry is terrorist activity, and as Gunvald Larsson finds out while observing in a Latin American country, the terrorists do not play nice.  While Beck is busy with trying to keep the would-be assassins from killing the Senator, he is also investigating a case dealing with pornography, drugs, and murder. Although the main focus of this novels is the measures put into place to prevent the death of the senator from a group who kill, get out and go on to their next job, the authors also reveal that there are other forms of terrorism that exist beyond the political -- and that they exist in every society.

Excellent book, especially the scene when Larsson is in Latin America, but consistently good throughout. My only problem was this nit-picky thing: in the Vintage/Black Lizard edition of Cop Killer, Martin Beck's friend and fellow detective inspector had the last name of  "Allwright," where in The Terrorists, his name was changed to "Content." I know exactly what happened and that each translator does things differently to try to fully convey the nuances of a language, but at the same time, it should be more consistent in a series of editions.  I spent a few minutes puzzled, but it dawned on me that the name change was in the translation.

Now that this series is over and my Vintage/Black Lizard Crime editions are all neatly shelved together, it's sort of a bittersweet kind of moment. I'm rather sad that I've finished all of the books, but the getting there was great.  These authors have put together an outstanding set of novels that no readers of crime fiction should miss, even if you do not agree with the authors' political statements.  The series was launched when Wahlöö sold only a minimal amount of copies of a book of his own political philosophy, and the two authors came to the realization that although no one was paying to read what Wahloo wrote, they would pay to read crime fiction.  Thus began the Martin Beck series, collectively known as "The Story of a Crime."  Actually, they managed to get their various points across quite effectively, and there are some truths to what they say.   On the other hand, as Dennis Lehane points out in the introduction to this particular edition,
One wonders how Sjöwall and Wahlöö managed to live there through the writing of the ten Martin Beck novels, so negative is their depiction of not just the failed welfare state but the physical landscape as well ...The courts don't work, the schools produce little but rot, and the ruling class skims the cream off the top and turns its back as the poor fight over the coffee grounds. 
They've also commented on the state of the police force since it was nationalized, the treatment of the elderly, and a host of other issues that they felt arose as a result of what they saw as the failure of the Swedish welfare state to take care of its people, setting aside the interests of regular citizens for the interests of those most actively involved in capitalism.

But politics aside, Sjöwall and Wahlöö gave us Martin Beck, the detective who started out on a patrol beat and became good at his job on the way up, and all of his co-workers, friends and associates whose lives we've followed throughout all of the books.  And there are many humorous moments throughout the series as well -- the Keystone cop-like antics of some of the patrolmen, the inept Stig Malm, Beck's boss whose job includes a great deal of toadying to his superiors, and there are many standing examples of Sjöwall and Perlöö's wry humor that run throughout all of the novels.  But the best part of these books lie in the authors' ability to create believable plots, to come up with ever-developing characters who often become frustrated to the point where they want to chuck it all but inevitably show up the next day for work (if they go home to sleep at all), and then they throw all of that in with their political opinions, and still manage to create a crime fiction series that stays on task, never getting excessive.  The bottom line is that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began these books as their personal mission, but the series stayed consistently excellent, and it has entertained and will continue to satisfy millions of crime fiction enthusiasts around the world.

fiction from Sweden

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cop Killer, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
originally published as Polismördaren
translated by Thomas Teal
296 pp.

It's been about a year now since the events of  The Locked Room.  Martin Beck's life has gained some stability since he met Rhea Nielsen, the landlady of the victim in the previous novel.  Now he's called to the small rural town of Anderslöv, where a young woman, Sigbrit Mård, has gone missing. Described as a "highly normal" person, Sigbrit isn't the type to just up and wander off into another life, so the police suspect foul play.  The two main suspects in the case are her ex-husband and a returning character from the first book in this series, Roseanna, and it is because of the latter that Beck becomes involved in the crime.  Things heat up when Sigbrit's body is discovered, and the press has a field day, putting immense amounts of pressure on the police to solve the crime, and literally trying the case in the newspapers. Beck's superiors in the National Police feel that the public will be happy if Beck takes the most obvious suspect into custody, but they're not the ones directly involved and Beck is frustrated. His instincts tell that him something is just not right here, and that the obvious may not be everything it seems.  While this investigation is going on, there's another crime -- this time against three members of the police force when they make a traffic stop where things go very badly and a shooting occurs.  One of the accomplices in this crime gets away, and the police must try to find him -- but not solely for his participation in this crime.  In the meantime, one of the members of the Homicide Squad begins to wonder if maybe he's had enough. 

The ninth of out ten books in this series, Cop Killer is a thought-provoking novel, with one of the key discussions that runs throughout the story centered on whether or not police should be armed, and whether or not an armed police force is the cause of so many gun-related deaths.  But beyond this debate, the book's title also gives a clue into the growing disenchantment of more seasoned members of the national police force, who realize that their abilities are being hampered by the rise in bureaucratic ineptitude.  For example, Stig Malm, Beck's boss, begins to call the shots from his comfy desk and tell the detectives how to do their jobs, even though in Beck's murder case, Beck knows that if he follows Malm's orders, he may be committing a miscarriage of justice. The same is true for the other case, but Malm is more concerned with pleasing the National Police Commissioner than anything else.  Even worse, to get his name and face in the newspaper, he takes command of operations in which he has no business being involved, and time has proven that things turn out very badly when he insinuates himself into these situations.  But on the whole, the  police force has changed both from within and from without, and not always for the better, and for some people it's just too much to deal with any more. 

Once again, these authors have given their readers a terrific story while continuing their tradition of social critique of what they see as the betrayal of the ideals of the welfare state. You may or may not agree with them or care about a Sweden of 40+ or so years ago, but you can't help but admire their sophisticated plotting talents, their ongoing characters who act and think like real people, and above all their literary talent.  Personally I'm rather sad that the series is almost at an end, because I know I'm never going to experience anything like it again. While there are some well-known modern writers of Scandinavian crime fiction that are quite popular right now  (for example Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson), I would hate to think that these fine books are being overlooked when they are clearly a part of the best that the Nordic countries have to offer.

Definitely recommended, but you should read the series in order to get the most out of it.

-sigh. On to the last book.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2006
originally published 1926

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has long been one of my favorite Christie novels, not so much for Poirot's detection skills, but for its classic ending.  This time around was my second reading of this book, and knowing the ending, it was still fun watching the solution to this rather baffling crime unravel.

Because of the nature of the story, I can't really give an in-depth summary here. If you decide to read this book, believe me, you'll thank me later.  In the quiet English village of King's Abbot, Roger Ackroyd, as the title suggests, ends up murdered in the study of his home Fernly Park.  As it just so happens, Poirot is in the village, staying in the house next door to Dr. Sheppard (the narrator) and his sister Caroline, where he spends his days growing vegetable marrows.  Dr. Sheppard believes his new neighbor is a hairdresser, based on the evidence of Poirot's moustache. But Poirot reveals his true colors as he gets down to the business of Ackroyd's murder, using his "little gray cells" to comb through the staggering amount of red herrings and a number of suspects in the case. 

While this book is extraordinary in terms of the case, there are also a number of humorous moments throughout. An entire chapter is devoted to a rather crazy mah-jong game where the players share their own theories about the case in between calling out plays.  And at one point, one of the suspects calls Poirot a "little foreign cock duck," and I swear I heard the voice of John Cleese in my head, as the epithet reminded me of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the French knights mercilessly taunt King Arthur and his men ("your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries").  But on the serious side, I have to say that this second reading provided me with a deeper appreciation for Christie's attention to minute detail -- as even little things turn out to be important in this book.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Christie's best works, with an ending you won't soon forget. It's a definite must read in the Christie canon and one of my personal favorites.

--what is a vegetable marrow, by the way?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

*Scream Black Murder, by Philip McLaren

Intrigue Press/WorldKrime, 2002
originally published 1995
252 pp.

Although this story is fictional, there is a true backdrop to this novel.  In Sydney, Australia, 1989, a police raid resulted in three arrests and one death, that of the homeowner, David John Gundy. To make matters worse, in 1992, an appalling video was shown on national TV of a police staff party where two cops arrived in blackface, one with a hangman's noose around his neck. Signs were hanging around their necks, one with the name of Lloyd Boney (who mysteriously died in police custody), and one bearing the name of David Gundy, both indigenous Australians. Political pressure had been put on the police regarding the number of unsolved black deaths, and with the death of Gundy and then the airing of the tasteless video, several human rights groups including Amnesty International got involved, protesting against the racist component of policing. 

In Scream Black Murder, a unit known as the Aboriginal Homicide Unit has been created, based largely on this pressure.  [To be honest, I have tried to find any reference to this unit on the internet and cannot, so I can't say whether or not this is a real part of the New South Wales police. Any info would be helpful just to answer my question.]  Out of fifty Aboriginal officers, two made the cut: Gary Leslie and Lisa Fuller. Their first case involves the deaths of two indigenous Australians, one male, one female. The State Police are the first to respond; after Leslie and Fuller arrive, the case is turned over to them. The two face a series of challenges in getting to the heart of the matter -- not the least of which is the fact that their involvement isn't much welcomed. And, as more bodies are discovered, one of them white, the two find themselves under intense media scrutiny, only heightening the pressure to nail the killer.  The narrative is told in alternating points of view -- first, in a third-person narrative detailing the lives of Gary and Leslie both on the job and off, and then the musings of the killer, who offers a look inside his head as he targets his victims and then kills them.

I actually read this some time back and then took some time to give some thought to my response to this novel.  Scream Black Murder gets great reviews on and on Goodreads, with about a 4.5-stars average rating.  I have mixed feelings about this book. Although I appreciated the author's commentary on the problems of the Aboriginal community, the racism of the police department, and his storyline about indigenous children being taken away from their parents at an early age (all done quite well, by the way), the mystery component of the story seemed rather tame.  It's sort of a thing where the tension ratchets and then we're off into a foray into the personal lives of the two officers -- for me, there were just too many interruptions in the flow in the progress of the criminal investigation.  I realize this is a personal issue, but when I read crime fiction, I'm in it for the crime and how it's solved (or not), preferring a tighter narrative that gets to the point and stays on target throughout.   On the other hand, the author highlighted many important aspects of  the racial and social issues confronting indigenous Australians, many of which I was previously unaware.

I'll definitely try more of McLaren's work in the future. I recommend Scream Black Murder to crime fiction enthusiasts who aren't so much on the edgy side of crime reads as I seem to be, and I also recommend it as a work from an indigenous Australian writer who isn't hesitant about setting forth the issues mentioned above. 

fiction from Australia

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Locked Room, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
originally published as Det Slutna Rummet, 1972
translated by Paul Britten Austin
311 pp.

Some fifteen months have passed since the events of The Abominable Man, and Martin Beck is still recovering from a bullet wound that almost killed him. As the novel opens, he's going back to work, and upon his return, Kollberg hands him a case file. He notes to Martin Beck that it was too bad Beck didn't read detective stories, because if he did, he'd probably appreciate the case even more.  As it turns out, what he's handed over is the case of Karl Edvin Svard, who died from a gunshot in a locked room.  The police suspect suicide, but the problem is that there's no gun anywhere. Because the original investigators thought it was suicide, they treated the case rather lackadaisacally, and this attitude rippled outwards, even down to the medical examiner.  Beck now has to go back and start over from the beginning to make any sense of the case.  Meanwhile, there is an ongoing series of bank robberies that are plaguing the police, and the National Police Commissioner has turned the investigations over to one Sten "Bulldozer" Olsson, in charge of a newly-formed special squad. Olsson isn't a policeman, but an overconfident and overzealous district attorney, for whom life was "one big jolly game". The squad spends a great deal of its time working on a small group of criminals who Olsson is convinced are the robbers -- but who also may be using their ill-gotten gain to fund larger crimes.  There's a great deal to be said about the obvious differences in the ways in which Martin Beck and Olsson go about doing their jobs in this book.

This time the authors do something a bit different than in previous books, offering a look at the criminals and their dealings with each other. I'm not so sure I liked this diversion so much -- one thing I enjoy about these books is their ability to tell several stories at once without being superfluous. Personally, this was a disruption in my reading flow.  But on the other hand, the backstory of another of the characters, Monita, was well done and fit better into the narrative as a whole; in fact, her story was necessary to the novel on several levels.  What is ongoing in this novel, as in all of the Martin Beck series, is the social and political commentary.  This time it's the police department, the state of care for the elderly, and other facets of society that fall under the authors' axe.  Also continuing is the humor, which is at times rather wicked in this novel. And then there's Rhea, a woman whom Martin Beck meets during the course of his investigation, who after all of Beck's troubles in life, is able to free him from his own locked room. Is this a sign that love is in the offing? I suppose I'll have to wait and see in the next book.

The Locked Room is perhaps not of the intensity of its predecessor The Abominable Man, but it's still quite compelling and a good read. Highly recommended, as is the entire series.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Abominable Man, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009
originally published as Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle, 1971
translated by Thomas Teal

Part the seventh of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's excellent 10-part series, The Abominable Man starts off in a hospital room where a man lays in a great deal of pain and anxiety due to his fear of death. To get his mind off his problems for a moment, he makes his way to the nurses' station and back, and is savagely attacked when he returns to his room. Martin Beck, who had just spent the evening with his daughter, has just gotten into bed at 2:30 a.m. when the phone rings. The caller is Einar Rönn, also on the murder squad, who calls Beck because of the identity of the dead man: it is Chief Inspector Stig Nyman.  Digging into his past, the investigators discover numerous complaints of mistreatment and brutality against Nyman, which doesn't make their job any easier.  In the meantime, Martin Beck is seized with a feeling of dread -- intuiting danger ahead.

The Abominable Man is another excellent novel from Sjowall and Wahloo, and it is darker in tone than any of its predecessors,  one of the most intense books of the series so far.  There are the typical moments of humor, but much less so than in prior novels. The authors' focus in this installment ranges from the effects of the 1965 nationalization of the police force to the altering of Stockholm's city center over the previous decade in a "frenzy of modernization."  But these sort of comments are the meat of these books, considering the entire 10-book is subtitled "The Story of a Crime." As Maj Sjowall notes in an article in the Guardian a couple of years back,

We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.

As in most of these novels, there's a sense of overwhelming frustration that lasts throughout the story, first on the part of the police, who find their jobs more difficult and as Martin Beck feels, often "pointless." Matters are only made worse when during a crisis Beck's "politically reliable" superintendent gets involved, but whose "qualifications as a policeman were more open to question."  But it's not just the police -- the frustration of many ordinary citizens who turn to the authorities for help here is so well portrayed that while reading the story one can almost feel it.

The Abominable Man is one of the most atmospheric novels in the series, and in my humble opinion as a reader, one of the best.  While Sjöwall and Wahlöö manage to get their sociopolitical points across, they're also damn good crime fiction writers and their plotting is superb.  You can't really ask for much better than that.

fiction from Sweden

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Murder at the Savoy, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
originally published as Polis, Polis, Potatismos!, 1970
translation by Amy and Ken Knoespel

In the city of Malmo, which lies just across the ocean from the coast of Denmark, a group of people are having dinner together at the Savoy hotel.  A man enters the dining room and shoots one of them, a wealthy industrialist who promptly falls into a plate of mashed potatoes that surround a fish casserole. The shooter leaves through a window and he's gone. With very little clues as to the killer's identity, the police begin to focus on the dead man, Victor Palmgren, and his associates. Things become rather complicated when Martin Beck, Chief Inspector of the National Homicide Squad is told to move quickly on the case and get it closed, because Palmgren has been involved in some shady transactions abroad which might cause some embarrassment to some in the upper echelons of Swedish politics.

Murder at the Savoy is the sixth book and doesn't have the intensity of some of its predecessors in the series, but it's still a great read.  As always, Wahloo and Sjowall take their opportunity to voice their opinions about the social problems in Sweden of the time.  This time, though, the authors also ask their readers to consider the very nature of crime itself, and the question of justice, for that matter.  While most people consider crime to be under the purview of the police and the legal system, there are those for whom there is no recourse, especially when one is at the mercy of the whims of the rich and famous.  This is one of those issues that is never pertinent only to a time or a place -- it is an ongoing reality of life. This is one of the characteristics of the series as a whole -- the books may have been written decades ago, but the authors' observations remain appropriate in the present time.  As with the other books, there are memorable moments of humor during a serious investigation, and the characters continue to grow and change, acting very human all of the time. And another hallmark of this series continues here: the crime, the investigation, the characters' lives and the social commentary all occur succinctly within a relatively short amount of space with no superfluous distractions. 

I am loving this series and have the final four stacked up, ready to read. I can't think of another author (or pair of authors) who have done what Wahloo and Sjowall have accomplished here in the realm of crime fiction. Just because these books were written some time ago, they're not antiquated: they've still got a lot to offer readers who are either just entering the genre or those who've been in it a while and have only focused on current offerings.  Again, you can read this as a standalone, but to get the most out of the series, I would suggest starting with the first book, Roseanna.

fiction from Sweden

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Fire Engine that Disappeared, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
originally published as Brandilen som Försvann, 1969
translated by Joan Tate
213 pp.

Arriving at the 5th installment out of the 10-book series to feature Martin Beck, the action begins on a freezing night police as Detective Gunvald Larsson goes to check on Officer Zachrisson, who is  maintaining a surveillance on an apartment house. Offering a bit of a respite to the near-frozen officer, Larsson takes over for a bit, and while he's struggling to stay warm, things unexpectedly heat up when the house explodes.  While in a bit of a state of shock, Larsson eventually rescues several people from the house, but sustains a head injury and is put into the hospital. As it turns out, the man the police were watching wasn't among the survivors. But how did the fire start? What caused the explosion? Was this a suicide attempt, terrorism or just an accident? And where was the fire engine that had been sent for?  In the meantime, a man who committed suicide is discovered in his apartment, leaving no note, just a piece of paper with the name "Martin Beck" written on it.  This time Martin Beck isn't exactly in the forefront, but the mystery is challenging, and watching the solution unravel is intriguing.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared is yet another sterling work in this series. The character development continues to grow stronger with each installment, so that by this book (if you're reading them in order)  you get the feeling that you're checking in once again on what your old friends are up to. What I find so amazing about this series is that each of these books is rather short, but there's a full story, great characterization, and an interesting look at the authors' world view in each one without any superfluous detail that often bogs down a police procedural and makes you want to skim to get back to the meat of the investigation. I'm sitting here looking at my copy of Nesbo's The Leopard, coming in at 611 pages; I mean, what a contrast! But back to the Beck series: there's also enough witty humor so that the reader will often walk away with a chuckle in the midst of a lot of serious business. This book is no exception, especially when Wahloo and Sjowall bring in Inspector Mansson, who is a complete contrast to Beck.

You could read this book as a standalone, but it will definitely serve you better to read the entire series because of the social/political components that the authors are trying to highlight and because the characters become more familiar with each book.  Highly recommended, not to just to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, but to crime fiction readers in general.  And for Pete's sake, don't expect Stieg Larsson here, and don't complain when you don't get him.  With this series, the authors have created some of the best crime fiction I've ever read.