Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: Murder at the Savoy

Murder at the Savoy (The Martin Beck series,…The introduction to this volume (by Michael Carlson) is one of the better ones in this edition – finally someone who does not deem it necessary to a follow a mention of the authors’ Marxist leanings with a disclaimer that they are not preaching party politics.

Unlike communism or socialism, Marxism is not a political movement but a philosophy and an analysis of the workings of capitalist society (which both communism and socialism claim to build on – notice that there is a difference); in fact Marxism is probably to this day the most nuanced and incisive analytical tool in existence if one tries to comprehend the forces driving economy and society. And this is important for Murder at the Savoy, because while earlier novels in the series always had a strong element of social realism, it is here that Sjöwall/Wahlöö first attempt to tackle Swedish society as a whole rather than just certain localized aspects of it.

Depicting the whole of contemporary society as based on injustice, driven by corruption and held together by exploitation is of course quite ambitious for a police procedural, and while Murder at the Savoy is still clearly and unambiguously a crime novel, the authors just as clearly were not satisfied with the scope that following standard genre conventions offered them. And I would argue that it’s precisely an underlying Marxist analysis of Swedish society that allows Sjöwall und Wahlöö to open up their perspective here, providing a foundation that grounds their criticism and lends it impetus beyond the range of a crime fiction plot.

Which does not mean that the authors are neglecting that aspect of the novel – just like the previous installments in the series, Murder at the Savoy is an excellent police procedural, combining a compelling mystery with realistic descriptions of police work and plausible character portraits. Interestingly, at the same time as the series begins to present a broader perspective on Swedish society at the time, it also spends increasingly more time filling out the smaller details in the lives of its protagonists, painting small pictures inside the big one. In fact, it might even be the most admirable feature of this series how it manages to strike an almost perfect balance between prodesse and delectare – indeed, there are few works in any genre that mix instruction and delight as well as Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s series.

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