(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The ten novels that constitute the Martin Beck series represent a remarkable achievement in the realm of mystery and detective fiction. Begun in 1965 and completed in 1975, the year of Per Wahlöö’s death, the books chronicle a decade in the lives of the members of the Stockholm Police homicide squad, focusing primarily on detective Martin Beck, who becomes the head of the squad by the end of the series. The nationalization of the Swedish police force in the early 1960’s—an event to which Sjöwall and Wahlöö refer in Polismordaren (1974; Cop Killer, 1975) as the creation of a state within the state—led the couple to plan a series of ten books that would reflect the changes taking place in Swedish society. Using crime as the basis for their examination, they planned the books as one continuous story told in ten segments, each of which constitutes a separate novel, with characters who recur throughout the series and whose lives change as it progresses.

In choosing the crime novel as the setting for their study, Sjöwall and Wahlöö selected a medium that would allow their characters to interact with all strata of Swedish society, and the cases in the Martin Beck books involve criminals and victims who are drug addicts, sex murderers, industrialists, tourists, welfare recipients, members of the bourgeoisie, and—in a plot that eerily foreshadowed subsequent events—the Swedish prime minister. The police force in most countries, perhaps more than any other group, deals directly with the end result of social problems, both as they affect the social mainstream and as they relate to those who fall through society’s cracks, and the crimes that form the plots of the Beck novels are often a direct outgrowth of existing sociological conditions.

Roseanna and The Terrorists

The arc that the series follows moves from fairly straightforward, although horrifying, murders and sex crimes to cases that increasingly reflect the growing violence in most Western societies throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The first book in the series, Roseanna, details the squad’s efforts to track down the lone, disturbed murderer of a young American tourist, and the final entry, Terroristema (1975; The Terrorists, 1976), finds the detectives attempting to thwart the plans of an international assassin during the visit of a right-wing American senator. (The fact that both characters are Americans is almost certainly intentional, as the books often make mention of the level of crime and the availability of guns in the United States, which is seen as a cautionary model of an excessively violent society.)

The decaying relationship between the police and Swedish society is depicted in the series as an outgrowth of the role the nationalized police force came to play in Sweden’s bureaucratic welfare society. This position is outlined in the final pages of The Terrorists by Martin Beck’s closest friend, Lennart Kollberg, who has left the force: “They made a terrible mistake back then. Putting the police in the vanguard of violence is like putting the cart before the horse.” Kollberg’s comment puts into words the implied criticism throughout the series of the use of police violence to combat rising social violence.

Murder at the Savoy

The source of that violence is seen by Sjöwall and Wahlöö as a by-product of Western economic systems. In the same book, another character remarks, “For as long as I can remember, large and powerful nations within the capitalist bloc have been ruled by people who according to accepted legal norms are simply criminals.” In the series’ sixth book Polis, polis, potatismos! (1970; Murder at the Savoy, 1971), the murder of a wealthy business executive and arms trafficker is traced to a former employee who lost his job, his home, and his family as a result of the executive’s ruthless policies. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the crime has removed a despicable man from the world, although his “work” will be carried on by his equally unsavory associates. The book ends with Martin Beck unhappy in the knowledge that the man he has caught will spend years in prison for murdering a corrupt man whose callousness Beck despises. As Kollberg notes near the end of The Terrorists, “Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last ten years.” The book ends with the former police detective playing the letter X in a game of Scrabble and declaring, “Then I say X—X as in Marx.”

The Laughing Policeman and The Locked Room

The climate of the 1960’s, with its antiwar protests and generation-based schisms, also fuels the negative view of the police. In The Laughing Policeman, Beck’s teenage daughter, Ingrid, tells him that she had once boasted to her friends that her father was a police officer, but she now rarely admits it. The general mood of the 1960’s, combined with the easy availability of drugs and the growing number of citizens living on social welfare rolls, places the...

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