Stuff I’m Reading: “Roseanna,” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

by |
07/16/2008 9:00 AM |

Scandinavian crime fiction, man. Lonely, stoic cops investigating sad people who commit ugly murders of depressingly anonymous victims, for misconceived reasons, in bad weather.

A friend says she couldn’t get through The Laughing Policeman, the most famous of the sequence of ten police procedurals written by the husband-and-wife team of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, because it was just such a slog through dead ends and the kind of frankly mind-numbing process by which law enforcement officials do generally apprehend criminals. And yeah, I can see how that might not be the thing one wants from one’s crime fiction. (Especially when a lot of crime writers really don’t have the writing chops for the kind of psychological insight that can substitute for plot movement.)

I dunno, though — reading the first in the series, from 1965, I kind of wanted it to be even more boring.

There’s something really engrossing about the way this investigation trudges along at first, without much hope but with a sense of a very specific realm of possibilities that need to be exhausted and hard-won clues that arise, giving the whole book (which spans half a year, from midsummer to the end of January) a sense of accumulation. And the slogging feeling is especially apropos when you consider the protagonist, among a fairly fleshed-out crew of cops, of this and the next nine books: the chain-smoking, depressive Martin Beck, who’s isolatingly socially averse — he’d rather build model ships than spend time with his wife and kids, and, in probably my favorite character quirk in the history of series detectives, he can’t stand riding the subway, like will take cabs to avoid being crammed in with so many other people, the narration even not looking straight on at how uncomfortable and terrified it must make him. The book is written, in general, in a terse, exterior, time-elliding style that suggests, despite being in the third person, something of the barely glanced-at roiling depths in Jims Thompson and Cain (without the psychosis. This is Scandinavia, after all. They’re well-adjusted and balanced even when clinically unhappy). Apparently Maj and Per planned the book together, then wrote alternate chapters; maybe it’s partly the leveling effects of translation, but I couldn’t tell. (I’ll look harder next time.)

Roseanna, surely the best-ever Swedish mystery novel named after a Toto song named after an Arquette, has a great hook, one that appeals to the reader’s interest in the solving of a seemingly impossible mystery, and to the police force’s (bureaucratic and personal) sense of impotence: in a canal on a lake in the south of Sweden, the body of a naked, strangled woman is pulled out of the water, and nobody can even figure out who she is, let alone who killed her. So I guess I was even a little disappointed when the book picked up speed towards the end, making some leaps to zero in on a target, and employing a scheme that’s at least two degrees of implausibility beyond anything that previously occurs.

But still, I had a good time reading it (it’s a fast read), and as much as it’s a craving-satisfying genre-lit diversion it also feels connected to a reality that’s worth getting wrapped up in. (One also wonders how Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s avowed Marxist project manifests in future entries in the series.)