My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A man commits suicide in a Stockholm apartment. He leaves behind a cryptic note with just two words: "Martin Beck."
Later, on the night of that same day another apartment building in Stockholm explodes in flames while the police are watching the building because of a low-level criminal who lives there. Eleven people live in the building and had it not been for the policeman who was watching at the moment of the explosion, Gunvald Larsson, they would likely all have died. Through his heroic efforts, eight of the people escaped, although one later died.
One resident, a teenage girl, was trapped and burned in the attic apartment and the man in the apartment where the fire started also died. It turned out that that man was the criminal whom the police had been watching and that an incendiary device had been placed in the man's mattress. However, complicating matters, it seems that the man was dead before the fire.
Martin Beck and his squad at first assume that the fire was an accident due to a gas leak, but once the incendiary device is discovered, they reluctantly accept the inevitable and commence the investigation.
The investigation proceeds at a snail's pace. The police search for weeks for their main suspect, an associate of the criminal who died in the fire, but no one has seen him since before the fire. It is suspected that he has gone abroad, but there are no clues to where or why.
Finally, a connection is found between the man who committed suicide and left his strange note and the criminal who died in the fire. But no one, including Martin Beck, can quite figure out what it all means.
Then another body is found by two boys who are fishing. They see an old car under the surface of the water. When the car is brought up, there is a long-dead body in it. Is this death somehow related to the others which the police are investigating?
This is the fifth book in the Martin Beck series - the halfway point of the ten book series. After I recently finished the fourth book in the series, The Laughing Policeman, I realized that I wasn't quite ready to give up the company of this group of characters and so I plunged ahead to read The Fire Engine That Disappeared. I'm glad I did, because I got to know several of the characters considerably better.
Martin Beck, now Chief Inspector, continues to be as much of a sad-sack as ever. His home life is abominable. In this book, his teenage daughter is making plans to move out of the home and one night she asks her father, "Why don't you move out, too?" Foreshadowing, perhaps?
Beck's best friend, if that he can be called, is Lennart Kollberg. He is a sensualist. His main joys in life are sex and food. He has a happy home life with his wife and child. He is sarcastic and rude to his colleagues, frequently expressing the opinion that they are all idiots.
One of the main targets of Kollberg's vitriol is Gunvald Larsson, who gets to be a hero in this book. He is the black sheep of a very rich family. He, like Kollberg, is lacking in interpersonal skills, but even though he can be boorish and tactless, he is actually a competent detective.
Larsson's only real friend on the squad is Einar Ronn, a calm and peaceful individual, who is also a hard-working and efficient detective. Even though Larsson is just as rude to him on the job as he is to everyone else, they are actually good friends.
Fredrik Melander is a detective with a flawless memory and a knack for always being in the restroom whenever anyone is looking for him. He seems to have no temper at all, always maintaining an even keel.
In this book, also, we get introduced to Benny Skacke, a young detective, with all the flaws of the young and inexperienced.
There's one other detective of note here: Per Mansson is not from Stockholm. He's actually from Malmo, but he turns up repeatedly in Martin Beck's cases, and this time he provides the clue which eventually helps to break the case.
This is an interesting group of men, none of whom have very attractive personalities, with the possible exception of Mansson and Ronn. They are a prickly lot who don't really like each other very much, and yet they are capable of working together efficiently when circumstances demand it. One thing they all seem to have in common is dogged determination. Even when there seem to be no clues, they keep following their procedures, working the case, and somehow always reaching a conclusion. And we lucky readers get to follow them step by step.
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