Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Abominable Man

The Abominable Man (The Martin Beck series,…When I wrote in my post on Sjöwall’s & Wahlöö’s Murder at the Savoy that the authors were taking the whole of Swedish society into their analytical focus, I was not entirely correct – with all the harsh criticism there remained at least one area where things still seemed to be for the most part as they should be, namely the Swedish police. Certainly, there was the occasional incompetent cop, the occasional bureaucrat who cared only for his own career, but overall the novels gave the impression that police was filled with people like Martin Beck or Lennart Kollberg – far from perfect, but hard-working and well-meaning people.

All of this changes with The Abominable Man. This seventh novel in the series opens with an aged policeman being murdered in his hospital room, and the ensuing investigation into his death not only reveals him to be incompetent, narrow-minded, reactionary and prone to use violence, but also makes it clear that everyone knew about this, that in fact he trained many young policemen (with rather questionable methods) to his way of thinking, and that the only reason his career in the police came to a sudden standstill is the arrival of a more liberal climate in Swedish society during the sixties – a climate which by the end of that decade (when I presume the novel takes place) has already begun to fade again. And the farther the investigations proceeds, the more heinous the things uncovered about the current state of the Swedish police service – civilians being harassed, arrested on a whim, beaten up in police cars or cells, even left to die – and all of it without the least recriminations, complaints being squished by blind solidarity among police officers or swallowed up without a trace by the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the legal system.

At the same time, this is probably the most fast-paced and action-packed volume of the series so far, taking place within a single day and ending with an extended edge-of-your-seat-tension finale (and a rather high body count). A finale that also is highly symbolic – the Swedish police is so rotten to the core that it is beyond redemption and impossible to reason with, and anyone who attempts it is in mortal danger. It is hard to pick favourites here, but this might just the be the best installment in what has been a consistently excellent series (but of course there are still three more novels to go).

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