Friday, March 11, 2016

Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Martin Beck is a Swedish police detective living and investigating crimes mostly in and around Stockholm. He is complicated. He is dedicated to his work. He is married with two children but he and his wife (I don't think she has ever even been mentioned by name) don't get along too well. He is a bit put off by crowds. He smokes when he is nervous or when he is thinking. He likes to drink a beer or two. He has a sensitive stomach and is often beset by a cold. He works long hours and is determined to see the investigation through no matter what the cost to his own health or personal life. 

I like him.

The series of ten Martin Beck novels were written between 1965 and 1975 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They are police procedurals so the reader is treated to a slow gathering of evidence and verbatim interrogations. There are no cell phones, computers, or other technological wonders. 

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not only writing companions but lovers as well. They plotted the books together and then wrote alternate chapters.  The writing style is simple and sparse and dramatic. The crimes are not pleasant and reflect what was happening in Sweden in the '60s. These are not your gentle Golden Age mysteries.

In the first novel, Roseanna, Martin Beck (and he is almost always referred to by both names) investigates the murder of an American tourist. In the second, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, the one I am reading now, Martin Beck flies to Soviet-ruled Budapest, at the request of the Swedish Foreign Office, to track down a missing Swedish journalist.

The descriptions of the people and the cityscapes are fascinating. The authors don't miss a trick even when it comes to describing passengers on a river boat or tourists at a park that will never be seen again. If I was so inclined I could take a map of Stockholm or Budapest and follow Martin Beck's route around those cities.

It's sort of like being on a virtual vacation.

My library has all of the novels in its ebook collection. I came across these in looking for another in the series that was recommended by a friend, The Laughing Detective. As I am wont to do, I had to start at the beginning. 

On one hand, I just want to hole up and read all ten as quickly as possible just to be in the presence of Martin Beck. On the other hand, these might be better read over time to prolong the enjoyment.

I wouldn't normally read mystery novels quite this dark but the foreign locales and the terrific cast of characters have a certain appeal.

Although I have not succumbed to the current obsession for the Scandinavian mystery novels such as those written by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (but I have watched the Wallender television series with Kenneth Branagh), I will most likely stick with these.

How about you? Have you fallen under the spell of Nordic Noir?


  1. Not yet, but that doesn't mean I won't! I have a title on my TBR shelf right now (the name escapes me for the moment). One of my goals is to read more books in translation and/or set in countries I'm not as familiar with. I usually prefer the more humorous or cozy mystery, but I might put up with more intensity if the characters and setting are that compelling.

    1. Hi, Kathy. You can count me in on the humorous and cozy but these are so intriguing I can't resist. One thing about the Martin Beck novels is that they each contain 30 chapters and I keep trying to guess which author - Maj or Per - wrote the chapter I am reading. Not that it matters...

  2. I do enjoy the Nordic mysteries. Add Jo Nesbo to the list. I've read several of the Martin Beck mysteries and like them, too. All of them are an escape into other lives and into foreign places as well.

    1. Hi, Joan. I have heard great things about Jo Nesbo. Perhaps reading the Martin Beck mysteries will toughen me up and I will move on to the more modern Nordic Noir.