I’ve read two of the Martin Beck series back to back. Book four, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, and book five, THE FIRE ENGINE THAT DISAPPEARED.
Ten yards away stood a lone dismal figure, a pipe in his mouth and his hands thrust deep down in his coat pockets. This was Fredrik Melander of the Murder Squad in Stockholm and a veteran of hundreds of difficult investigations. He was generally known for his logical mind, his excellent memory and unshakeable calm. Within a smaller circle, he was most famous for his remarkable capacity for always being in the toilet when anyone wanted to get hold of him.
The Martin Beck sequence was famously written by two left journalists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and accidentally invented what we now call Nordic Noir. The books are about the homicide team centered around Martin Beck, who is introduced in book one as the best criminal investigator in Stockholm.
It took Martin Beck less than thirty seconds to open the door, which was considered a long time, as he had already got the key from the estate agent.
What’s Martin Beck like?
As usual he was not hungry, only slightly sick, and he drank coffee in order to make his condition a little worse.
He constantly has a cold, his stomach hates him, he’s trapped in a dismal marriage, and he has precisely one friend; his voracious, priapic and obese colleague Kollberg, who lumbers and squelches around the books abusing people because he thinks it’s character-building and regularly bunking off home to his wonderfully happy marriage.
The authors, on Xmas:
The epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path. Children were already howling from exhaustion and fathers of families were plunged into debt until their next holiday. The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere. The hospitals had a boom in cardiac infarctions, nervous breakdowns and burst stomach ulcers.
Thing is: the books are funny. You don’t get many laughs in Wallander.
“Don’t let him say one word to the witness until you’ve seen the death certificate.”
The team are misfits and human horrors, Beck is a fine mind locked inside a fast-decaying body and a miserable life, Stockholm is… well…
There was little to be said in favour of this repulsive Wednesday.
And the cases are notable not for the brilliance of the villains or the exoticism of the crimes, but for their awkwardness and the way the books sell the basic quotidian difficulties of ordinary flawed tired people solving ordinary nasty crimes. The laugh at the end of THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is an incredibly sad, bleak, rueful laugh.
In the sixties, these books must have been a hard shock. A unique one. Today, what’s most interesting about them — aside from the quality of the writing and the plotting and the clever mix of materials — is what was left after everyone else plundered them. That acid, ruthless sense of humour.