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


  1. Nice review. The mother/father of the police procedural. I've read the whole series.

  2. Thanks, Simeon. Definitely a great series!


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