On the other side of 1965, in a country called Sweden, a crime series – The Story of a Crime -was born. Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, a husband and wife team, wrote a set of ten novels, one each year till 1975, with Martin Beck, a detective of the National Homicide Bureau, as the chief protagonist. The impact and success of these novels were so phenomenal, that the authors came to be regarded as the godfathers of Scandinavian crime fiction.
48 years later, I am just getting acquainted with Martin Beck, thanks to this post. My first taste of a ‘police procedural’ – Roseanna – the opening book in the series, was a distinctive read.
I am used to super sleuths who solve crimes with élan and in good time. And here we have Martin Beck, who cannot even have one coffee too many without it affecting his stomach or one worry too many without it affecting his sleep. An indifferent family man, with a penchant for brooding, he is an unlikely hero. Add to that the procedural delay intrinsic to any institutionalised investigation, that too in a pre-facsimile, pre-cell phone and pre- internet age. The book saunters along, there is no galloping here.
The people and the settings are revealed with brisk minimalistic strokes, like a charcoal drawing. So much so, that even Christmas in snow covered Sweden, ends up looking grey. There are no lengthy deliberations or explanations and the reader’s presence is barely acknowledged. The assumption seems to be that, she would be smart enough to trundle along, without any superfluous signposts to decode the characters, their thought processes or motivations. It is not all laconic grimness though; it also has genuinely funny bits – a brilliant contradiction of sorts.
Apparently it is this stark realism that set these books apart, and in many ways, set the tone for the Scandinavian crime writing that was to follow. The plot revolves around the body of a young woman found in the Göta Canal, during a dredging operation. Over the next 6 months, the police piece together the puzzle of her death, one scattered bit at a time. Starting from establishing her identity, to the unconventional staging of an episode that finally leads to the arrest of the killer, the investigation moves in fits and starts. Inspite of a lot of leg work, dead ends and long periods when the enquiry seems to have come to a complete standstill, the story surprisingly does not stagnate. But one does start empathising with the group of policemen as they plod on without an end in sight.
But what is as intriguing as the plot, is how a husband and wife team managed to collaborate, on such a project and executed it so brilliantly, working on alternate chapters at night, after putting their sons to sleep. As an American writer asked, very succinctly, “I don’t see how you do it. My wife and I can’t even collaborate on boiling an egg.”
I admit the book was unfamiliar territory for me, right from the umlauts, to frostiness of the land and terseness of the people. Maybe, this genre would be an acquired taste, like espresso. I will give it another shot; maybe those taste buds will mature in time.