Classics in September – Originally published in 1965, Roseanna was the first of 10 police procedural novels featuring Detective Martin Beck of Sweden’s National Murder Squad. It launched a writing partnership between Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ that would last until the latter’s premature death in 1975. Regarded by many of their more recent successors as the grandparents of Nordic noir, with their Martin Beck series the writers created a blueprint delineating everything needed to construct the ultimate police procedural novel.
Roseanna opens with the discovery of a young woman’s body floating in a canal. The victim has been raped and murdered, but with no means of identifying her, the case quickly hits a brick wall. It’s not until several months later that Beck and his team finally get a break when they’re contacted by Interpol and our victim is finally named. She’s Roseanna McGraw, an American tourist who was travelling by boat down to southern Sweden at the time of her death. Even with this information, it’s another six months before Beck and his team finally solve the case.
The pace of the book may seem quite slow, but this is entirely intentional as Sjӧwall and Wahlӧӧ wanted their novels to be as true to real police investigations as possible. Police work doesn’t always move at breakneck speed, and even the best run cases hit the odd bump along the way, slowing them down. This is a time period without the modern advances we’re used to seeing in CSI and Silent Witness, but it’s efficient and well-organised. What’s important here is that the reader understands the processes and pitfalls that a crime investigation goes through.
By the time we meet Martin in chapter three, the investigation is already well underway. The body has been removed from the canal, the autopsy performed, and a cause of death established. What’s striking from the very first page of this book is the level of detail that the writers go to in depicting the events as they happen – including the description of the victim’s body and the way it was found. Sjӧwall and Wahlӧӧ invite their readers to engage with the investigation far more than their predecessors such as Stieg Ivar Trenter and Dagmar Maria Lang, who had dominated the Scandinavian crime fiction market between the 1940s and 60s.
Swedish crime writers before Sjӧwall and Wahlӧӧ tended to focus their writing predominantly on solving the mystery rather than the process involved. Trenter in particular, who was known as Sweden’s Agatha Christie, focused a great deal on detailed settings and creating a vibrant image for his readers. What makes Sjӧwall and Wahlӧӧ so innovative as crime writers is that they dared to take the crime fiction genre that one step further and explore the aspects of their own society which, in their eyes, were failing. Both came from journalistic backgrounds, with Wahlӧӧ having worked as a crime journalist – something that would prove invaluable to their books as he was able to draw on his own experiences of working with murder detectives.
As a protagonist, Martin Beck is not what you’d call your archetypal hero. In fact he’s anything but, and that too is important because it adds to the realism that was key to the success of this series. He’s middle aged, married but not happily so, has two teenage children, and constantly suffers with a bad stomach. As the series progresses his marriage finally collapses ending in divorce and he begins a new relationship that has its rocky moments. Remind you of anyone? While perhaps a poor husband, he is a good detective who patiently works through the evidence with gritty determination to solve a case.
All 10 novels have been made into films, with four hitting screens outside Sweden. The most notable was an adaptation of The Laughing Policeman, in which Walter Matthau played the Beck character, renamed Jake Martin in a story relocated to San Francisco. The books also inspired a series of Beck films, written by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind, which were loosely based on the characters from the novels but with a very modern feel to them.
To understand the success and importance of Nordic Noir your first port of call should be the Beck novels, especially Roseanna. It actually took me two readings of the book to fully appreciate where Sjӧwall and Wahlӧӧ were coming from, and why they inspired successive generations of crime writers such as Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and Sara Blædel to follow in their footsteps. Their influence resonates through modern Scandinavian crime fiction. In Harry Hole and Kurt Wallander we see glimmers of Martin Beck in the dysfunctional elements of their characters alongside their solid, dogged police work. They take a methodical approach to each case and the storylines focuse on real life issues.
These are also things that have played a key role in the success of TV crime dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge, and they are the reasons why the Martin Beck series will always be Nordic crime classics.
One of my favourite crime series ever, an excellent place to start the Classics in September! I think the series gets better (or at least more complex and dark) as it goes on, with the last one ‘The Terrorists’ being particularly relevant to our present-day. And although the pace of the investigation may be far slower (and police are hampered by the lack of mobile phones and more sophisticated gadgets), the stories themselves still feel very fresh.