"He looked tired and his sunburned skin seemed yellowish in the gray light. His face was lean with a broad forehead and a strong jaw. His mouth, under his short, straight nose, was thin and wide with two deep lines near the corners. When he smiled, you could see his healthy, white teeth. His dark hair was combed straight back from the even hairline and had not yet begun to gray. The look in his soft blue eyes was clear and calm. He was thin but not especially tall and somewhat round-shouldered. Some women would say he was good looking but most of them would see him as quite ordinary. He dressed in a way that would draw no attention. If anything, his clothes were a little too discreet."
And thus I was introduced to the Swedish detective Martin Beck. As you can see from that description, he is unassuming. He catches every cold, every flu bug, coffee makes him sick, but he drinks it, and riding the subway makes him nauseous, and yet he has to ride it. When he isn't sick he is melancholy on the verge of depression. He works massive hours for a combination of reasons mainly that he is obsessed by his cases and his marriage is on the skids. He married the woman that he wanted mainly because she was happy, an antidote to his sad nature. Once she had kids, like what happens with most people, she changed. It comes back to the old argument of whether men or women are crazier, the women that marry men thinking they can change them or the men that marry women thinking they are going to stay the same.
When Beck is home he works on a model ship allowing his mind to freely roam over his caseload. His kids are just background noise to his life. He doesn't seem to be interested in them. They are just symptoms to the disease of his failed marriage. Lake Vattern
The crime that is the basis of this novel involves the brutal murder and rape of an American tourist from Nebraska, Roseanna McGraw. Her body is fished out of Lake Vattern, and though the case belongs to a small town police district in Motala, due to the nature of the crime, a team of detectives including Beck are sent to assist. He meets a kindred spirit in the Detective Alhberg from Motala. They both obsess over cases and as no clues present themselves in the case of Roseanna they keep calling each other with meaningless information, in an attempt to stir the brain cells, as the case lingers unsolved for months.
The interest part for me was the police procedure part of the process. They enlist the help of a Detective Kafka from Lincoln, Nebraska who interviews former lovers and acquaintances of the deceased. This new information is presented to the reader as transcripts of the conversations. Because the crime is a sex crime it required that the detective ask very personal questions of the satellite people around Roseanna. Beck also has to ask some very uncomfortable questions on his end of the investigation as he interviews people connected to his suspect. We are exposed to the humdrum nature of police work as the detectives wait patiently for any kind of new clue that will spur more action. The writers do manage to build the tension as Beck is sure he has his guy. Beck, running out of resources and time, comes up with a desperate plan to try and catch his suspect. Beck operates off of intuition, and so he makes leaps of logic without proof. The book felt very authentic and the writing was crisp and clean.
Henning Mankell wrote the introduction and he probably should be sending Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo a royalty check for each new Kurt Wallander book or movie deal because Kurt Wallander is without a doubt based off of the character Martin Beck. Wallander certainly annoys me more than Beck. I do feel at times like grabbing Kurt by the shoulders and giving him a good shake. He is just so inconceivably depressed all the time that it does start to feel like self-indulgent behavior. With Beck I felt more sympathetic with his plight. I have hopes that as the series progresses that he at least attempts to find a way to be happy.
With Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander providing my main exposure to Swedish culture I could get the impression that they are a depressed nation. I checked to see where Sweden falls on the list of depressed countries and they don't even break the top twenty. Suicide rates in Sweden land them at 30th in the world, certainly not high enough to make one think that everyone is suicidal in Sweden. If they are a melancholy nation they certainly don't feel the need to take that last slow walk out into the woods and eat a bullet.
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were a common law marriage team that wrote ten Martin Beck novels. They conceived an outline together for each book and then wrote alternating chapters. The book was seamless. I didn't find myself experiencing a difference of style leaving one chapter and starting another. I wonder if that was blended by the translation or if they really did have complimentary styles of writing.Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo
I will certainly read another Martin Beck. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard have reissued the series in attractive matching trade paperbacks that encourage the reader to want to own them all.