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.

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