Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Fire Engine that Disappeared

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are not only the grandparents of the Scandinavian crime novel, but there 10-volume series of novels (known in English, somewhat misleadingly as the “Martin Beck” series) pretty much (with some influence from Ed McBains 87th Precinct series) defined the shape of contemporary police procedurals.

What the series basically does is to combine social realism with the mystery novel – it takes an unflinching look at Swedish society from the early sixties to the early seventies, a look that becomes increasingly tinged with bitterness as a supposedly welfare state lets go more and more of its promise to build a better future for everyone, and instead continues to privilege the rich and powerful. Which would be very depressing stuff, if it wasn’t made readable, enjoyable even (to some degree at least) by the mystery plot that keeps readers turning the pages even as they are confronted with a sheer endless parade of human misery and mean-spiritedness. Formally considered, this is very 19th century, as Sjöwall / Wahlöö use mystery in very much the same way as Dickens or Zola used melodrama, and I would not be at all surprised if that was a tradition they intentionally decided to place themselves in.

The Fire Engine that Disappeared is the fifth volume in the series, and it continues its general trend to become increasingly focused on the character’s private lives and on giving a picture of Swedish society at the time. There is more space given to the character’s concerns outside of their police job than before, and the narrative is even more de-centralized, Martin Beck becoming almost a minor figure as the novel follows his colleagues Larsson and Kollberg as well as Mansson from Malmö and newcomer Skane. That emphasizes one of the distinguishing features of this series, the utter ordinariness of its protagonists which are not only not outstandingly good-looking or intelligent, but frequently not even particularly good policemen, but just civil servants that do their job without any particular enthusiasm and who get results not so much by brilliant deduction than by luck or sheer dogged persistence.

The latter is particularly ironic if one considers how many of the cases could just as well have occurred in a classical mystery novel. While the puzzle element is not as strong here as in the previous novel, the investigators find themselves confronted by the corpse of someone who apparently committed suicide as well as being murdered. The Fire Engine that Disappeared takes its time in solving the crime, both in that the investigations span several months and in that the novel is not what anyone would call a page-turner. It’s not slow either, however, but moves along at a steady, comfortable speed, giving readers the chance to take in the scenery along that way, as bleak as that proves to be. And it’s precisely this view of the scenery that will likely linger longest with the reader, Sjöwall/Wahlöö’s hard and uncompromising perspective on a welfare state coming apart (a perspective which I’m convinced they developed not in spite of but because of their Marxist views – something I might return to in a post on a later volume) will remain in  most readers’ memory even when the details of the crime plot have faded.


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