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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Roseanna S Jowall and Wahloo - The Martin Beck Killings book 1

I'd been meaning to get around to trying out the series of Swedish crime thrillers known under the collective title of The Martin Beck killings for some time now. I keep reading about the series.

The authors are often called the godparents of Scandinavian crime.

"They changed the genre. Whoever is writing crime ficton after these novels is inspired by them." Henning Mankell.

Written by husband and wife writing team, S Jowall and Wahloo there series was originally conceived as being ten novels and Roseanna is the first in the series. The book was originally published in 1965 and the series is huge in Sweden, with all of the books having been filmed in one form or another. One novel, The Laughing Policeman was filmed with Walter Matthau though the setting was changed to San Francisco and the characters were given different names.

Recently the series was covered as part of Radio Four's excellent Foreign Bodies season of documentaries that looked at crime fiction across Europe, and after listening to this program I found myself even more eager to try the series.  Radio Four also dramatised all ten stories and these are available on CD and like, all BBC Radio drama, are well worth getting hold of.

The author's said that they were inspired my Ed McBain and after reading Roseanna I can see that - the style of writing is similar- short, punchy matter of fact paragraphs that propel the story forward, banter between the cops which is often nonsensical,  and not only do we see the investigation  through the eyes of Martin Beck but also from the POV of other members of the investigating team. All of this echoes the style of McBain's 87th Precinct series.

The way the authors wrote the books was that they would outline an incredibly detailed synopsis and then working from it they would write alternative chapters. So successful were they on their home turf that the world's current bestselling crime author, Jo Nesbo has listed the series as a major influence on his own work.

Mr and Mrs - the writing team
Reading Roseanna I was aware that the authors were fervent Socialists and maybe because of this I detected a lot of left wing ideas in the work. The killer is not presented as purely evil but rather as a victim of a social system that is failing, and the book ends with Martin Beck, a man who has spent months trying to trip him up, feeling sympathy for him. And there is also some suggestion that the victim through her careless and provocative actions ultimately brought her fate upon herself. Of course the book doesn't go all out with this idea but there is the feeling that her actions were a contributing factor in her murder.

The characters are a particular strength of the book and Martin Beck comes across as fully formed and very real - in this first book he is trapped in a failing marriage and his work offers him some kind of escape from the mundane existence he lives outside of the police force. Though mundane could also sum up his work life and for a large chunk of the novel the investigation goes nowhere, for some time  the police don't even know the identity of the dead woman and even when they discover her identity the case unravels at a snail pace which adds considerably to the realistic, almost documentary feel of the narrative. There's no unbelievable detective work here but rather a slow, plodding, methodological progress that ultimately leads the police to their man.

So did I enjoy the book? Well the fact that immediately after finishing the book, I went up the Amazon and downloaded the second book in the series to my Kindle should answer that question. I want to learn more of this Martin Beck and the world he inhabits, and I intend to read the entire series.

Also available.

Radio Four's dramatisation of the novel which was first broadcast in October 2012 stars Steven Mackintosh as Beck and Neil Pearson as Kolberg. I like the way the drama is played out with the twin narrators (supposedly the authors) setting the scenes. This brings the almost documentary feel of the novel to vivid life.

The play lasts for 1hr and 15 mins and is compelling listening.

1 comment:

Randy Johnson said...

I read a number of them years ago. The only title I can specifically remember is THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN. I enjoyed them, but things weren't as easy to find in the pre-internet days and I moved on to other stuff.