Monday, December 2, 2013

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo were a Swedish husband and wife writing team, who, between 1965 and 1975, published a series of ten books featuring the detective Martin Beck. In many ways, this was an iconic series, forerunner and progenitor of some of the most popular Scandinavian mystery/thriller series of today. Writers like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Stieg Larson certainly owe a debt to the Sjowall/Wahloo team.

Over the years, I have seen references to this series in reviews that I've read of other books. Finally, I decided it was time for me to get to know the works and to find out why others spoke of them so reverentially.

This Kindle edition of Roseanna that I read had an introduction written by Henning Mankell, in which he acknowledged his debt to the earlier writers. (Mr. Wahloo is now deceased, but Ms. Sjowall is still with us - just not writing mysteries anymore.) He also mentions the influence of American detective fiction on the Sjowall/Wahloo team, especially the books of Ed McBain.

But as I was reading this first book in the series, I had to wonder if perhaps they were influenced by that Stone Age television detective series Dragnet with Jack Webb. Jack Webb's character, Joe Friday, was always famous for wanting "Just the facts, ma'am" from his overly loquacious witnesses. That is the feeling that I get from this book.

It is a police procedural that follows step by excruciating step as Inspector Martin Beck and his team attempt to solve the murder of an unidentified woman who was raped, strangled, and then her naked body thrown into a lake where it was later brought up by a dredger.

The investigation proceeds at a snail's pace as the investigators attempt to identify a body that had no identification and which no one has reported missing. The first break in the case finally comes from an unexpected source - the American embassy. It seems that an American tourist traveling in Europe has not returned as expected to her home in Lincoln, Nebraska. That tourist was a librarian named Roseanna and the investigation of her death becomes an international effort.

Even with her identification though, there are still no clues as to how or why she wound up in the lake. The second break comes when the investigators are able to determine that she was a passenger on a tourist boat.

And so it goes. Bit by bit the investigators build their case, eliminating some possibilities and following up leads on others, until finally some pictures taken by some of the tourists on the boat and Beck's intuition lead them to the solution to the case and to their killer. It is six-and-a-half months after the woman's death.

Martin Beck is a typically morose Scandinavian detective. (Are all of these guys depressed?) One can certainly see the prototype of Mankell's Kurt Wallander, for example, in Beck. Martin Beck always seems to be sick or worried about his health. He has a wife and family but he is too obsessed by his work to spend much time with them or even to relate to them as a normal husband and father might. He is driven to solve murders. Nothing else seems to matter to him.

It was very interesting to read this story from the '60s. Everybody used public telephones. There were no cell phones, no computers, no tiny tape recorders. And Sweden was very different from today. There were few immigrants and no constant flow of refugees as is very much the case today. It was a much more homogeneous society.

I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the nine which follow. I just have one silly quibble. Throughout the book, the writers always refer to their detective as Martin Beck. He's never just Martin or just Beck. It irritated me a bit after a while. Did they feel they had to continually remind us of his full name? Were they afraid we would forget it? What's up with that anyway?      



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