No, the books aren’t actually called “A Great Swedish Adventure,” but listing all of them in the title for this post would take far too long. Basically, I spent much of Saturday and part of today plowing through four books in the Story of a Crime series, and it seemed silly to stop and write a few comments about each one, so I am bundling them all into one post. I’ve now read the whole series except for two books, which have mysteriously been “in transit” for several days.
These books really showed a marked shift, and a stark departure from the earlier novels, which read more like your basic police procedurals. They integrated material which was highly critical of the Swedish government and the police, showing the dark side of Swedish society. I love this section from The Abominable Man:
The center of Stockholm had been subjected to sweeping and violent changes in the course of the last ten years. Entire districts had been leveled and new ones constructed. The structure of the city had been altered: streets had been broadened and freeways built. What was behind all this activity was hardly an ambition to create a humane social environment but rather a desire to achieve the fullest possible exploitation of valuable land. In the heart of the city it had not been enough to tear down ninety percent of the buildings and completely obliterate the original street plan; violence had been visited on the natural topography itself.
I think of Sweden as a pretty nice place to live, as I’m sure a lot of people do. Citizens seem generally healthy, happy, and wealthy. But these books emphasized the high suicide rate, the issues of crime, and what happens to the dregs of Swedish society, people who are not adequately cared for by the state. In The Terrorists, the series is brought to a shocking conclusion with the assassination of the prime minister, an eerie precognition of the shooting of Olof Palme barely a decade later.
The Story of a Crime is as much about the decline of Swedish society, which one could view as a crime, as it is about a series of puzzling and interesting murders. I really liked the characters in the series, and I liked that the books expanded as the series progressed so that we learned more about their lives and motivations; rather than focusing on Beck exclusively, the series let us meet his fellow policemen and learn about them, too.
The cultural and political shift which takes place over the course of the series is pretty remarkable. The authors used ongoing political and cultural events as a backdrop for the novels, and to illustrate the growing sense of disillusionment among the characters; Beck’s friend Kollberg, for example, quits the police force in frustration, while others on the police force openly exhibit sympathy for political demonstrators.
The books make me want to spend some time in modern Sweden, to see what life there is like now. Of course, with the cost of living there being so high, I probably can’t afford to indulge this desire.
The Fire Engine That Disappeared, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate. Published 1970, 213 pages. Fiction.
The Abominable Man, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. Published 1972, 215 pages.
The Locked Room, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Translated from the Swedish by Paul Britten Austen. Published 1973, 311 pages. Fiction.
The Terrorists, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate. Published 1975, 280 pages. Fiction.