Well, this is a hell of a way to introduce a character. It was only when I came to enter the fact I was reading ROSEANNA onto Goodreads that I realised it is the inaugural book of the Martin Beck series (as you may guess, I’m more of a ‘pick up and read’ type of guy, than a ‘research deeply beforehand’ type of guy’). There was the legend in front of me: ‘Martin Beck, 1’. And the interesting thing is that by the time I did add it to this website, I was already sixty pages through and hadn’t noticed that this was an introductory novel. There was no grand and startling entrance; instead there was a police station, a somewhat miserable homicide detective and his downbeat, but professional team. And of course there was a murder which had to be solved. There’s little in the way of background, little in terms of context, we are in Sweden in the 1960s and there’s work to be done.
This is certainly one of the most existential crime novels I’ve ever read. Throughout there’s a sense of disorientation, of questioning the world and the way it works, questioning the terrible things man does. Of course all mystery novels are about questions, all mystery novels are about the terrible things men do; but here the questions don’t stop at the exit to the interrogation room, they are everywhere in the world. I make it sound bleak, yet the forward propulsion of the plot and the tension of each fresh questioning, means that it’s never dull or a chore to get through. It’s grim and unrelenting, sure, but also fundamentally gripping. There’s a reason why these two are the godparents of Swedish crime fiction. As undoubtedly this isn’t an English crime novel or an American crime novel, it’s most definitely Scandinavian – the missing link between Ingmar Bergman and Harry Hole.
A body of a young woman is found in a lake and Martin Beck and his team are called to investigate. As summer turns to winter and everything gets colder and darker, the investigation continues – seemingly without conclusion. At the centre of the book is a sex crime, around it are possible other sexual assaults and the horror of it all is restated again and again. This is not a book that goes for moments of levity, this is not a novel which tries to lighten the tone; this is an examination of a crime which almost feels ground down by it. At the centre we have the policeman, Martin Beck, who is seemingly ill throughout, as if his malaise at the murders he faces and the state of the modern world has turned into physical illness. As I said this is his introduction as a character, but we find out little about him – he has a loveless marriage, a couple of kids and is building a model boat. What’s really important to him is his job, or more specifically the case he’s acting on. His colleagues are so ill defined they are almost cyphers, his team is barely indistinguishable from one another, but again that adds to the procedural existentialism of it. Rather than give these other policemen names, Sjowell and Wahloo may as well have just called them Officer A and officer B.
This is a truly Scandinavian crime novel.
Life is bleak, horrible things happen and there seems to be no escape from it. Martin Beck is building a model ship, that is how he amuses himself when he’s not working (which takes up most of his time) or dealing with his family (which takes up less). He distracts his mind from what’s going on around him, by working on this tiny replica of a boat. It’s his form of escape. But Roseanna McKay, the victim, died on a boat. She was someone who was escaping, heading across Europe for the trip of a lifetime, and the horrible nature of life caught up with her there. And so before he’s even finished it, the model of the boat – not even a real boat, but a model which couldn’t sail him anywhere anyway – just looks even more futile as a means of getting away. It’s actually pointed out that Roseanna McKay could have died in an accident, just been hit by a truck, but instead she was murdered and so became Martin Beck’s responsibility. And so this detective, who is one of life’s questioners, starts to question the world all over again and when he finds the answer he’s looking for, it doesn’t seem to give him any satisfaction at all.
Again, this is a very Scandinavian crime novel.
And in the background is an American cop with the unlikely name of Kafka. Raymond Chandler once called a character Hemmingway, describing him as “A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you believe it must be good” (which given Chandler’s style, is a dig you wonder how seriously to take). The Kafka reference in ROSEANNA can’t help but add to the jaded existentialism of it all (even if the character of Kafka himself is the least jaded police officer on show). It’s a reminder that for all these questions that need to be asked, there are – like Joseph K finds in THE TRIAL and THE CASTLE – some questions which can’t be answered.
I know I’ve made it sound bleak, I know I’ve hammered down the point that this is very Scandinavian; but if you want to clutch a book between white knuckles and feel the hairs on the back on your neck rise, this is definitely one to go for.
Fancy a taste of my own thriller, DIANA CHRISTMAS? You can get the first three chapters here.