Crime in a cold cli­mate

The Laugh­ing Po­lice­man By Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Harper Peren­nial, 248pp, $ 19.99 The Man on the Bal­cony By Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Harper Peren­nial, 248pp, $ 19.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robin Wal­lace- Crabbe

WHEN the first of the now 10- book Martin Beck se­ries ap­peared in 1965, sud­denly the streets of Stock­holm ap­peared mean; where re­al­ist style cops, or­di­nary guys with per­sonal prob­lems, in­ves­ti­gated ter­ri­ble crimes. Writ­ten by a Swedish hus­ban­dand- wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the se­ries de­fined and re­fined the pro­ce­dural crime novel. Com­mit­ted to their Marx­ist- hu­man­ist ide­ol­ogy, Sjowall and Wahloo used the genre to ex­am­ine the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties of a Swe­den re­garded through­out the world as a model so­cial­ist state.

The third in the se­ries, The Laugh­ing Po­lice­man , is laced with mo­ments such as, ‘‘ It goes quite with­out say­ing that as a private per­son and a con­ser­va­tive I don’t make the slight­est dis­crim­i­na­tion among peo­ple on ac­count of colour, race or opin­ion. But you just imag­ine a po­lice force swarm­ing with Jews and com­mu­nists. You see what I mean, don’t you?’’

That’s Ull­holm, the ul­tra- re­ac­tionary de­tec­tive in Beck’s team. The Laugh­ing Po­lice­man ( it was a 1970s Hol­ly­wood movie) has the cops won­der­ing why, on a dark and rainy night, a man might ma­chine­gun the pas­sen­gers of a num­ber 47 bus. There are eight dead and an­other se­ri­ously wounded. One of the dead, In­spec­tor Ake Sten­strom, worked with Martin Beck. Why was Sten­strom on that bus? While wait­ing, hop­ing, to ex­tract vi­tal in­for­ma­tion from the co­matose sur­vivor, Beck’s col­leagues check the past of each vic­tim. As the story builds there’s a gath­er­ing be­lief that Asa Tor­rell, the dead in­spec­tor’s be­trothed, holds the key to this ex­tra­or­di­nary crime.

A dead cop means all hands on deck and so Sjowall and Wahloo were able to write all their char­ac­ters into the one in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Half­way through the book, the reader still has no idea who did the dirty deed. There hasn’t been much ac­tion ei­ther. Still, the writ­ing is com­pelling. Which is why the se­ries, long revered by crime fiction afi­ciona­dos, has been reis­sued, with co­pi­ous notes on the au­thors and Martin Beck’s 10 ex­ploits at the back of each vol­ume.

Po­lice work can be slow, haz­ardous, its con­clu­sions du­bi­ous. Track­ing pro­ce­dure, we are pre­sented with a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Swedish so­ci­ety. This is Sjowall and Wahloo’s pur­pose. They un­der­stand that a po­lice force is one of those rare in­sti­tu­tions through which an au­thor might present a cred­i­ble pic­ture of class, gen­der and ide­o­log­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion seems to get nowhere. One of­fi­cer, Ronn, clings ob­sti­nately to a word and a name recorded on tape just be­fore the wounded man dies in hospi­tal. An­other, Me­lander, re­tains ex­traor­di­nar­ily clear images of the corpses on the bus. Even­tu­ally, in­deed bril­liantly, th­ese frag­ments are brought to­gether — there is the ex­pla­na­tion, here the ar­rest.

The books are far from be­ing the kind of car­bon copies of each other fre­quently found in a crime se­ries, yet of course there are sim­i­lar­i­ties. And al­ways, em­phat­i­cally, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of some puz­zling crime points to all not be­ing as it should in the Swedish state.

The Man on the Bal­cony , first pub­lished in 1967, is par­tic­u­larly dis­turb­ing since, while we read­ers are fol­low­ing a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, there is some­one out there rap­ing and killing young girls.

Worse, a wo­man who had rung in to re­port her sus­pi­cion re­gard­ing the in­ten­tions of the man across the road was rudely dis­missed by the po­lice of­fi­cer tak­ing the call.

Some­thing about that phone in­ci­dent had lodged it­self in Martin Beck’s mind. But what was that some­thing? Mean­while, a mug­ger, Rolf Lund­gren, is ar­rested. Will Rolf’s de­scrip­tion of a man he saw near the wa­ter tower prove use­ful? Those are the ba­sics of this story, and it’s a great story. But the real and at­ten­tion- grab­bing el­e­ments of the story are still shaped by the in­ter­ac­tions of the char­ac­ters and the de­gree to which each in­di­vid­ual’s re­sponses to life are lim­ited by psy­cho­log­i­cal type and a nar­row world view.

Plus, of course, there are more oc­ca­sional com­ments on our gen­eral con­di­tion. ‘‘ He [ Beck] doubted whether this was a con­cern of the po­lice at all. Drug- tak­ing among young peo­ple was caused by a cat­a­strophic phi­los­o­phy which had been pro­voked by the pre­vail­ing sys­tem. Con­se­quently so­ci­ety should be duty bound to pro­duce an ef­fec­tive counter- ar­gu­ment. One that was not based on smug­ness and more po­lice of­fi­cers.’’ Painter and au­thor Robin Wal­lace- Crabbe writes crime thrillers as Robert Wal­lace.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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