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.

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