Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Locked Room

By the time they reach the eighth volume of their run, most successful series will have found their rhythm and settled into their groove, chugging along at a comfortable speed along well-known rails. And there is nothing wrong with what, especially in genre literature which by definition exists to retread familiar ground and to provide its readers with the comfort of knowing what to expect – while, of course, still keeping things fresh and interesting; to achieve that balance is what makes good genre literate (and fail it either way you will end up with something that is either boring or no longer genre).

However, it has been clear from very early on in  their series of police procedurals that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are aiming for more than just good genre literature, that their ambition actually runs towards redefining the genre; and so it is no surprise that they keep experimenting with its boundaries even this far into their series. In The Locked Room they do that by opening the genre borders towards another genre, namely that of satire.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö always have shown a sense of humour, and that humour has always leaned towards the trenchant, but in this novel, in particular in the scenes featuring the task force on bank robbery and its leader “Bulldozer” Olsen. Those scenes are not only extremely funny, but they are also a well-aimed critique of the way the Swedish police apparatus is functioning, or more precisely, malfunctioning, thus taking up the thread from the previous volume. The spectacle the task force is offering, as ludicrous and laugh-aloud funny as it is, is not simply a Swedish version of the Keystone Cops – there is a reason why the authors start the first meeting of the task force with an essay-like passage analysing what and why is wrong with the police in Sweden, and only after that prelude has placed it in a context unleash all their savage humour. The police’s incompetence is again emphasized by contrasting it – another novelty for the series – a large amount of chapters from the viewpoint of the criminals, who turn out to be just as average and mostly normal as their police counterparts – only considerably better at their job, which gives occasion for even more satire.

At the same time as they are playing with genre limits in the bankrobbing thread of the novel, Sjöwall and Wahlöö – in a typical, highly ironical counter-move – follow a parallel thread, centred around the freshly returned Martin Beck, which tackles the most clichéd of mystery problems, namely the locked room puzzle. I strongly suspect that already at the time The Locked Room was written, no crime writer who wanted to be taken seriously would have dared touch this kind of mystery, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö not only tackle it full-on, but even name their novel after it. And of course there are some policemen who read crime fiction in their spare time, who remark on how the case could have come straight out of a mystery novel, and who thus introduce some light metafictional element into The Locked Room – an element that I doubt was very frequent in crime novels of the day, so that Sjöwall and Wahlöö manage to give even that most classical of puzzles a genre-expanding twist.

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