In 1965 writing partners (and partners in real life) Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö embarked on a quest – to write and publish ten novels in ten years featuring Stockholm’s Martin Beck. The novels, police procedurals, were structured as not only mysteries, but reflections and commentary on modern Swedish society. The duo wore alternating chapters – but since I haven’t read any of their individual works I couldn’t;t guess who wrote which chapter in any given novel. The books are cohesive and follow policeman Martin Beck as he progresses through the ranks of the Swedish national police.
Although these books were written decades ago many of the issues and crimes depicted by Sjöwall and Wahlöö sound eerily familiar – violence against women and children, serial killers, terrorism. Their top detective Beck is an interesting character. We follow him through the ten years as his marriage implodes and he becomes more and more disillusioned with the growing militarism of the police and his superiors’ endless bureaucracy (and incompetence). But Beck doesn’t work alone. Equally interesting are his colleagues Lennart Kollberg and Gunvald Larsson and female detective Åsa Torell and Rhea Nielsen. I listened to these books on Audible and was grateful for the reader to pronounce all of the Swedish place names, but also surprised at the pronunciation of some of the characters names. If I had been reading it in paperback or Kindle I never would have guessed that Kollberg is pronounced Kahl-bree-yah in Sweden.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö are considered the origin and of modern Scandi-noir. They have influenced a great many writers, such as Henning Mankell (Wallander), Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) and Jo Nesbø (The Snowman). I enjoyed all of the books and came to care about Beck and his compatriots. Not only was reading the series doable, it satisfied my completist mentality. I really enjoyed a glimpse into the swinging ’60s and ’70s Sweden. Maybe not so free-thinking as I might have thought. My favorites were probably The Man on the Balcony, The Laughing Policeman, The Abominable Man and The Locked Room, although I recommend checking out the entire series. Although I appreciate the authors’ discipline, I wish there were more Beck novels. Apparently there are a ton of movie and television adaptations of the books and the characters, although so far I haven’t found any on any of my streaming services.
The books, in the order they were published (and how I read them) are as follows:
Roseanna (1965) – In this first novel of the series Martin Beck must determine the identity of the corpse of a young woman found in a canal. The solving of the case requires long-term and meticulous research and sometimes a little luck.
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) – Beck is sent to Budapest to find a missing journalist. Sixties Eastern Europe is an interesting backdrop and the reader gets to know more an=bout Beck’s home life and his quirks and attitudes.
The Man on the Balcony (1967) – The series takes a dark turn as Beck & Co. try to track down a serial pedophile/murder. Two bumbling cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, are introduced, as well as detective Gunvald Larsson to provide some subtle and wry comic relief.
The Laughing Policeman (1968) Maybe the most well-known of the series, this was adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Walter Matthau (which I haven’t been able to find streaming anywhere) and also won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1971. The opening, and the main crime to be investigated is stunning – on a snowy night a gunman, wielding a sub-machine gun, boards a commuter bus and systematically kills everyone aboard and then disappears. One of the passengers happens to be Beck’s young colleague detective Åke Stenström.
The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) – Gunvald Larsson is about to replace a fellow cop on a routine surveillance assignment when the building they are observing goes up in flames. He singlehandedly rescues many of the residents, but Beck must determine the cause and more importantly, the why of the conflagration.
Murder at the Savoy (1970) – During a fancy banquet at Stockholm’s Savoy Hotel a gunman walks in, shoots a man in the head and walks out. No one in the crowded room can offer much information on his identity. How will Beck track him down?
The Abominable Man (1971) – A former policeman is killed while in the hospital. Beck must not only track down the culprit but the motive. One of the most exciting books of the series, this involves a city-wide manhunt and a crazed sniper holding the city hostage.
The Locked Room (1972) – This book involves two separate crime investigations – a series of bank robberies (which was apparently a big problem in Sweden in the ’70s) and Beck trying to solve a classic locked room mystery.
Cop Killer (1974) – This book has a callback to first novel Roseanna as Beck investigates the disappearance of a young woman in southern Sweden.
The Terrorists (1975) – Beck and his team are tasked to protect a very unpopular U.S. senator on his visit to Sweden. The novel follows Beck and his team as well as the terrorist cell that is planning to disrupt the visit.