Before there was Henning Mankell and the rest of the Swedish mystery writers there was Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a husband and wife writing team.
The authors of the Martin Beck series created an image of Stockholm and Sweden that made the city and country accessible to readers before travel to Europe became customary. Martin Beck and the other members of the homicide squad are looking forward to a quiet summer. The biggest problem facing the police is a series of muggings in the various parks in Stockholm. The mugger works quickly, seems to know who is carrying enough money to make his actions worthwhile, and lets his targets go without inflecting any harm.
One morning, as the squad gathers to assign the responsibilities of the day, Gunvald Larsson answers the phone. A woman is calling to report an observation she has made. Larsson is less than patient but the woman insists that the police should look into the man on the balcony in the apartment building across from the one in which she lives. Larsson explains, in a less than kindly tone, that the police can’t act on observations but the woman is insistent that there is something menacing about a man who stands on his balcony, day and night, and who seems to pay particular attention to children.
Everything changes when the mugger loses his temper and a victim is badly injured. Police are called, they exam the area for clues about the suspect without much hope of finding anything. Then two homeless men sit on a bench in the park and see, hidden in the bushes, the body of a little girl. The body isn’t far from the site of the mugging; was the body there and no one noticed it?
The dead child is an eight and a half -year- old girl who had been playing in the park with her friends. The child’s mother had reported her missing when she didn’t come back from playing in the park. The police get the names of her friends and begin conducting gentle interviews, hoping they can get a description of any adults in the area at the time their playmate disappeared. They are more than a little surprised when their best witness proves to be a three year-old with limited conversational skills.
The Stockholm homicide squad becomes increasingly driven when the bodies of other children are found. And then, there is a break in the case. A woman comes to the station to tell the police she can identify the mugger. He is her boyfriend and he is at home with another woman. Love is blind but jealousy isn’t. The police raid the apartment to find the mugger, his other girlfriend, the items he stole, and a few surprises hidden under the bed. The mugger can provide the police with an accurate description of the man who is most likely the killer.
There are ten books in the Martin Beck series, all published in Sweden between 1965 and 1975. All the brutality takes place off page. The Stockholm homicide squad are police officers who do their jobs to the best of their ability. Their home lives may be less than perfect but neither the characters nor the books are as bleak as those written by the newer writers. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo provide books that can be read in a quiet afternoon.
It is always interesting to see how non-Scandinavians review this fine old series. They were really good at what they did, and this point about not listening to some confused woman who has seen something is very well done, I think.
Dorte, I read the entire Martin Beck series as the books were being published in the United States in the late sixties and early seventies. In re-reading them forty years later, I found that they still hold up as good stories. They are police procedurals that show the police following procedure to the letter. The conversation with the woman reporting the activities of the man on the balcony is very well done. The woman doesn’t really have any facts to report; she is trying to explain the unease she feels when she watches him watching the people in the street.
I am going to re-read the entire series. It is unfortunate that the series didn’t continue.
Agree about Sjowall and Wahloo’s series. I’ve read three, and plan to read the rest, but not all at once. It would be like eating the entire box of chocolates in one sitting; what’s left for the rest of the week?
Not only is the Martin Beck character smart and sophisticated, but the other police detectives have different personalities and opinions, and they are interesting, too. That is somewhat unique in a police procedural.
“The Locked Room,” is quite a piece of work, with several plot lines, red herrings, zany crooks, many characters, and a well-worked out solution to not only the locked-room murder, but the whole story. It’s lots of fun to see the pieces fall into place.
This is the perfect series with which to curl up on a cold winter’s day, with tea and cookies, and make it a vacation afternoon.
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