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


  1. I have the first in the series on my shelf, and from reading your reviews, I have a lot of good, good reading to look forward to. I'll be back to read them more thoroughly after I read the books. This is a terrific blog- a great source of crime fiction/mysteries, one of my favorite genres.

    I've just heard of a new series coming on AMC on April 3, The Killing which is based on a Danish tv series. I'm going to check it out. It sounds very good.

  2. Thanks so much! I actually have this thing about making lists (it's my only OCD manifestation) so writing down what books I've read is fun for me. There are many better crime fiction blogs; this is just a hobby. Anyway, I've heard of The Killing (I think it recently ran on BBC) but thanks for pointing out it's coming our way.

    thanks again!

  3. There's something about Sweden and talented writers. Something in the water? I say this as a fan of John Lindqvist's Let the Right One In.

    Nice review. Visiting via Cym Lowell's blog.

  4. Thanks for coming by. Based on what I've read by several Scandinavian authors (not just in Sweden), they are definitely incredibly talented. I hope more people become aware that there are some great writers from this part of the world -- and that at least in crime fiction, crime fiction extends beyond just Stieg Larsson.

  5. oops. Didn't mean to say "crime fiction extends beyond just Stieg Larsson," but instead, good writing extends beyond just Stieg Larsson.

  6. I have seen the previous season of Abominable Man and it's very great. I love the twists of the story and the story line as well. Looking forward to seeing more actions and crime resolution soon.


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