December 15, 2009

BEFORE WALLANDER:

Swedish schnapps: The Martin Beck mysteries (WILLIAM CORBETT, December 2, 2008, Boston Phoenix)

The Martin Beck novels are exceptional fiction and will especially please readers of Henning Mankell (he contributes an introduction to Roseanna), whose own series of 10 Kurt Wallander novels is now complete. Mankell, Michael Ondaatje, and Michael Connelly agree that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote, in Ondaatje's phrase, "the first great series of police thrillers."

In the genre, the Martin Beck novels are "police procedurals," which is not a form of crime fiction at which American writers excel. We love the shamus, the private eye, the knight or lone wolf, the one good man in what W.H. Auden called "the Great Wrong Place": Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Connelly's Hieronymus Bosch, Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Marlowe and Reacher have been policemen; now they operate outside the law, natural enemies of authority. Bosch is still a cop, but he's at odds with his higher-ups and stubbornly goes his own way. Chief Inspector Martin Beck, by no means an organization man, is, like Kurt Wallander, part of a team. The moral vision of Sjöwall and Wahlöö sees essential value in the men and women who pursue criminals in our violent world. Remember Augusto Pinochet and the Spanish judge who had him arrested on a London street.

Beck is a brilliant interrogator who throws himself into his cases. His marriage suffers from his single-mindedness; then, like Wallander's, it ends. (Marlowe and Reacher are bachelors; Bosch has been married but is wedded to what can only be termed his calling.) Beck is also, like Wallander, the sort of investigator who notices small things and operates on instinct. At some point in most of the novels he puts the pieces together, sees what others have not seen, and acts. He is less a hero than a man born to do what he is doing. It's impossible to imagine him living any other sort of life.


Of course, the police procedural had already been done quite well in American novels--the 87th Precinct series, for example--and film and tv--the Naked City. But that ought not take anything away from the excellent Swedish imitators. One fascinating aspect of the Martin Beck books is that while the authors were socialist their fiction indicted Sweden in its own socialist heyday. By the time they published Roseanna, in particular, and in Wahloo's own novel, The 31st Floor, there was a real repulsion at the bureaucratic nature of the social welfare state. Meanwhile, Beck's relentless pursuit of justice and sacrifice of everything else in his life to the defense of the traditional public order smacks more of Martin Luther than Karl Marx.

There's also a recent Swedish tv series that's quite good if you can find it (Pirate Bay, but you didn't hear that here...).



Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2009 6:42 AM
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