Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Terrorists

If Cop Killer felt like the final volume of Maj Sjöwall’s and Per Wahlöö’s series of police procedurals (I simply refuse to call it the “Martin Beck” series like the covers of my edition do, because that goes blatantly against the spirit of the series), then The Terrorists reads like its epilogue.

The first nine volumes demonstrated how Sweden went from there (a comparatively enlightened state granting great liberties to its citizens) to here (an almost police state whose bureaucracy grinds down everyone who does not conform to the system), volume ten now presents a picture of how things are going to remain from now on. It is by far the longest novel in the series, and this is in part because it presents something like a summa of what the series has been about.

And in part this is because we almost get two novels in one here – one making up roughly the first half of the novel, consisting of a traditional whodunnit, the second telling of the attempts of Martin Beck and a team of (what often feels like the last few competent) policemen to prevent the assassination of a visiting right-wing politician from the United States. This repeats on a smaller scale the Before & After relation in which The Terrorists seems to me to stand to the rest of the series – the first crime appears almost old-fashioned, not only a crime of passion but one where the criminal actually used his crime to correct the shortcomings of the justice system. Sjöwall / Wahlöö don’t quite advocate vigilante justice here, but they also leave no doubt that the murder victim has ample deserved his fate and was killed to avenge a wrong.

In sharp contrast to this, the new, worse times have brought with them a new, worse kind of crime and criminals which simultaneously reflect the deteriorating state of things and contribute to accelerate that deterioration. These new criminals are professionals and mercenaries for whom killing is merely a business, profit their only motive. They are also ruthlessly efficient, and while Martin Beck and his colleagues manage to thwart the plans of the terrorists here, the novel leaves no doubt that the general level of competence of the Swedish police force is such that in the long run the criminals will eventually gain the upper hand.

And there is another kind of new criminal, produced by a system that mercilessly ostracizes everyone who does not fit its conception of what a citizen should be. I do not want to give too much of the plot away, so this is going to be a bit vague, but basically what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do here is to confront the ruthless, efficient mercenary criminal to someone victimized by precisely the welfare state which is supposed to protect people like them, people who ultimately are left with no resort to violence – both types of criminals subsumed into the category of “terrorists” and yet, vastly different. By the mid-seventies the Swedish state has become a merciless juggernaut, driven only by the momentum of its bureaucracy, crushing everything and everyone that is in its way because they does not conform.

As in previous novels, The Terrorists is kept from being utterly bleak and depressing by its main characters, who bring some human warmth into police proceedings and who increasingly appear like the last stand of humanity and compassion against the encroaching darkness of bureaucracy and incompetence. At the end of this novel, and thus the end of the series, we see several of them assembled during a companionable dinner – it is a surprisingly mellow final scene for a series that has been so scathing in its criticism of and so bleak in its outlook for Swedish society, but I for one am not complaining – it’s nice to leave the characters one has accompanied over the course of ten novels to some degree of private happiness.

It’s been a long ride through ten years of Swedish history with Martin Beck and his colleagues, but it has never been less than fascinating, and now that I have re-read the whole series, I have to say that it every single word of praise that has been heaped upon it has been well deserved.


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