The Martin Beck Series – Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

My Rating – 4.5/5

Review –

My dalliance with Scandinavian authors started with this relatively unknown series in India. One Sunday during my weekly visit to Crossword, I chanced to come across “The Laughing Policeman”, sandwiched between John Grishams and Jeffrey Archers. I vaguely remembered having read good things about this book in an old newspaper article. Needless to say, I bought the book. Only a couple of pages into the books, I was so engrossed that I finished it off in almost single sitting. I immediately vowed to buy the entire set. It took me almost 2 years to collect all the 10 gems from the series. (Those were pre Infibeam/Flipkart/Indiaplaza days).

The husband wife duo of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, journalists by profession and Marxist by disposition, set out to write 10 novels exposing the grim under-belly of the Swedish welfare state. They chose a very ingenious way to do it. The Martin Beck series is the outcome of their literary collaboration. During 1965 to 1975, they wrote 10 novels featuring the team at Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm led by First Detective Martin Beck. Though Martin Beck is a prominent character, he is not the “hero” of the series. He is just one of the team consisting of a motley crew of detectives of all the types and temperaments with their unique personas, qualities and follies. The duo is thorough in their research and you will be amazed by the detailing of the tortuous working of various government agencies. They spent months on end before actually sitting down to write the book plotting the story, doing research, visiting places, meeting people, taking hundreds of pictures and drawing maps. Each book gives minute particulars about the victim, witnesses, places, roads, hotels, apartments in Stockholm and other cities.

The result is a series of police procedural novels that are splendid with taut, intricately woven plots. My personal favourites are The Laughing Policeman, Roseanna and The Locked Room. You need not read the books chronologically. Mind you, you may find the books slowly paced; but then this was the era when technology played a minimal role in investigations and computers were not all pervasive. It was the time of landlines and public telephones and time plays a pivotal role in almost all the books. The work of the homicide bureau is full of dogged, tenacious toil following a trail. The team interrogate many, patiently sifts through the data, follows up on every possible lead and theory, diligently weighing the probability in each case, discarding the improbable, follows up more on the probable until only one suspect and theory lay at the end of this road. But the road is long and winding and there are chance turns and long pauses when nothing moves at all. But Beck and his team plod along underlining the most important quality of a homicide detective – Patience.

All the books reflect the social and political events of their times like Vietnam War but you can enjoy the series purely for their plots and the real characters drawn from the plethora of Swedish society. As Maj Sjowall has said in an interview, they wanted to display that crime and criminals are social mirror reflecting the direction in which Sweden was headed – a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society where Police became more and more powerless and the crime more brutal. By describing the unglamorous police profession as realistically as it was, they found the key to their objective.

The books in the series –

  1. Roseanna
  2. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke
  3. The Man On The Balcony
  4. The Laughing Policeman
  5. The Fire Engine That Disappeared
  6. Murder At The Savoy
  7. The Abominable Man
  8. The Locked Room
  9. Cop Killer
  10. The Terrorists

This series has always acted as a backdrop for me while reading the work of other Scandinavian writers such as The Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson or Inspector Wallander series by Henning Mankell. I will soon review some books from the series, though not in the above order, starting with The Laughing Policeman.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your time.

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5 thoughts on “The Martin Beck Series – Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

  1. Thanks for the comments on the Martin Beck series. I seldom read police procedural novels or even crime/mystery stories, but the depiction of society you allude to interests me. I’ll have a look at The Laughing Policeman. (The title reminds me of “The Singing Detective” by Detters (sp?).) Again, thanks for mining gems of the past.

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    • Thank you Don for your comment. Do have a look at the other books in the series also. Sjowall and Wahloo have made their observations in a very subtle way mostly through various characters from the series without being directly critical. One realises these changes slowly but surely as he moves along with the series for 10 years.

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  2. As a mystery writer, I am also a mystery reader. Thanks for this great introduction to a series I’ve not yet read. Sounds like my kind of crime story – one with good characterization
    and “old fashioned” police work.

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