The series of ten ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals, which were written in the ‘60s and ‘70s by the Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are considered classics of the genre, influencing a generation of crime writers across the world. Of their work, Henning Mankell said;
They realized that there was a huge, unexplored territory in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism.
Indeed, their books are most known for that social criticism, which, when included in ten books published over ten years explores a decade of social and cultural development in Sweden.
Roseanna is the first in the series and opens on a summer’s day in July with the discovery of the strangled body of a young woman, found during a dredging operation in Lake Vättern. The local police in Motala open an investigation, but without being able to even identify the victim, they make little headway and call in assistance from the National Homicide Bureau, led by Detective Martin Beck. When Beck and his team arrive, they have little to go on aside from an approximate time and cause of death. From this, they have to work out who their victim is first, before they can even think about finding her killer.
We haven’t learned a thing since then. We don’t know who she is, we don’t know the scene of the crime, and we have no suspects.
Roseanna takes a while to get going and features a deceptively simple and sparse style. As a procedural it is detailed and lucid, exploring inter-agency working and the day to day slog of detective work, where the officers have to painstakingly identify and contact almost 80 tourists who have now returned to their countries of origin. What it also explores in a fascinating way is the sheer amount of time that an investigation of this kind would take.
The narrative starts in July, with the discovery of the woman’s body and the investigation proceeds at a snail’s pace. Beck and his colleagues don’t find out the woman’s identity for three months and a break in the case doesn’t come until Christmas time. For such a compact and well-paced book, its depiction of the drudgery of this kind of work is spot-on.
Having said that, Roseanna is not a dull book and a lot of that is down to the fact that solving the mystery is not the only concern, with Sjöwall and Wahlöö clearly just as interested in characterisation, believable working practices and the depiction of balancing police work and family life. A lot of the success is clearly down to the character of Beck, who although not fully rounded in this first book, is still an engaging character.
Although crime readers are well-used to the dour, antisocial, dyspeptic detective nowadays, in the form of Wallander or Rebus, Beck’s sheer normality must have been a shock to crime readers in the 1960s. Here is a credible detective – overworked, under-resourced and curmudgeonly because of it. He has trouble at home, trying to communicate with his children and placate his hassled wife. He smokes too much and isn’t fit. He gets sick easily. Beck, and the officers who work for him, come across as normal human beings with lives that are put on hold as they carry out the slog required of a murder investigation.
What’s also impressive about this book is that it doesn’t feel dated despite police work being a completely different world nowadays. Beck and his crew have no mobile phones, no computers and no internet. They rely on telegrams and written reports, pay-phones and holiday photographs. Despite this, and despite the slow nature of the investigation, the novel reads as all good crime novels do, successfully building a growing sense of tension and pace which builds to a really impressive and quite nail-biting denouement.
I read Roseanna for this month’s Nordic FINDS hosted by Annabookbel and look forward to exploring more of the Martin Beck series.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!