‘No other professional group,’ reflects protagonist Martin Beck in the series of books that bear his name, ‘suffered from such role fixation or dramatised its daily life as did the police.’ Maybe true in the 1960s and 1970s when Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo wrote their novels, but now? Police these days, it seems, suffer from overdramatisation of their lives by voyeurs. Sheltered novelists of the suburbs have written themselves into wealth and fame with lazy breathless overblown imaginings of policework featuring hard-drinking womanising maverick cops. In fact the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, Nick Gargan, told the Guardian that he objected to the impression that CID personnel consist entirely of deranged alcoholics. It’s worth separating his quotes so you get the sense of what he says:
You see a Rebus or Morse at the scene, recovering forensic exhibits, interviewing the suspect, comforting the family, arguing with the chief constable about resources. What can be a team of 20, 30 or 40 people is concentrated in the person of this one senior investigator[.]
Do we have hard-drinking, heavy-smoking cynical people who make a few mistakes? Yes. But this slightly heroic bucking-the-system thing, I don’t think we have much of that.
There are some pretty damaged individuals in too many of these books. I’d quite like to see some cheery, well-balanced, well-adjusted, equally successful investigators. I’d hate to think our investigators were modelling themselves on Rebus, but I think a few of them modelled themselves on Frost. You get a bit of Morse too.
Outsiderism is a traditional theme in procedural crime fiction. As Nick Cohen wrote: ‘The hope that the educated outsider can solve a case which baffles the proletarian plods is buried deep in the culture. It runs from Sherlock Holmes through Lord Peter Wimsey and Poirot.’ Contemporary crime writers who want more realistic scenarios take the police more seriously, but centre their stories on a transgressive outsider figure within the force. It’s the ultimate in vicarious living, conformity and rebellion in one rush: your man doesn’t have to play it by the book as long as, goddamnit, he gets results.
The Martin Beck novels are different. Although Beck’s distinctive, even an iconoclast in his quiet way, the cases are very much ensemble pieces with a variety of detectives contributing effort and insights to the solution. The broadsheet cliché might be that that’s because these are Swedish novels reflecting a society that values the common good over individual talent. Only Sjowall and Wahloo defy these generalisations. Like most good crime novelists, Sjowall and Wahloo started in journalism. They were also radical in their politics. Per Wahloo was even deported from Franco’s Spain in 1957. The ten Beck novels weren’t just intended as a decalogue crime story but as a portrait of a society.
When the conservative writer P J O’Rourke visited Sweden in 1996, he was amazed that the Swedes had created a kind of ‘good capitalism’ but with such a strong welfare state. He lists the country’s child related and disability benefits, its occupational pensions, before concluding – ‘What happens to Sweden when nobody’s willing to lend it more money and the Swedes finally realize that they really can skip work for four months if the kid pukes? The people of Sweden—like Damocles— are set down to a sumptuous feast, and overhead , suspended by a hair is . . .’ You could argue that the Swedes managed okay despite the sword above their heads whereas it was the debt based Atlantic economies when smash in the crash. Sjowall and Wahloo’s politics could be predictable. They have a labourer, whose life has been ruined by a rapacious businessman, jump off a boat into the Savoy and shoot the guy dead. ‘Hope he gets a light sentence,’ Beck comments. But there are no simple state based solutions. For Beck and his team the big event in Swedish politics, the one that tips their country into decline, is the nationalisation of the police, which leaves it open to political interference. And these aren’t fables of the reconstruction. For Sjowall and Wahloo’s Stockholm cops the sexual revolution means little more than twelve year old drug addicted prostitutes and the welfare state means little more than old men slowly exsanguinating in unvisited rooms.
Politics in fiction has moved on. The latest big Scandicrime is The Bridge, whose villain the serial killer ‘Truth Terrorist’ weaves great sociological narratives to conceal his personal, all too human and traceable, motives. This is postmodern crime and Sjowall and Wahloo aren’t quite there. The Beck novels are exemplars of modernist crime fiction. Take the penultimate para of Roseanna, the first book, in which Beck solves the senseless murder of a young American woman. The killer’s motivation is unintelligible. ‘Don’t you understand,’ he shrieks at Beck. ‘I had to kill her dirty body.’ Then, towards the end, we get this:
Here comes Martin Beck and it’s snowing on his hat. He walks with a song; he walks with a sway! Hello, friends and brothers; it squeaks underfoot. It is a winter night. Hello to you all; just give a call and we’ll go home to southern Stockholm! By subway. To my part of town.
This is a departure from the narrative tone but it doesn’t jar. It’s an introduction to the series as well as a closer to the story, and it’s the authentic laughter of despair.
Or check this, from book three, the scariest of the books, about a child murder. These three paras end chapter sixteen:
Then he drove home. Had another cup of coffee and went to bed.
Lay awake in the dark, thinking.
Four short lines… but more content than many whole thriller novels, and more resonance.
Like most Beck readers I was hooked almost from day one. The books aren’t obviously compulsive but there’s a quiet passion there that draws you. I can’t recommend them enough… but only readers with a clear mind and strong stomach lining should apply.