If you’re like me, your awareness of the Scandinavian Noir phenomenon probably began with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008). But that flood of great Scandinavian crime writers that have found their way onto American bookshelves didn’t really begin with Larsson, or even Henning Mankell. It began with the common-law husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten books in the Martin Beck series first appeared between 1965 and 1975.
After many years, the first book in the series finally made it out of my to-read pile. Roseanna is an easy book to read and process, and at first glance, one might be unlikely to see what the big deal is. Although the pace is steady, even relentless, there isn’t much action. There’s humor, but to call it sly is generous; it’s dry and deadpan, very subtle. Neither the detectives nor the criminal are geniuses, or oddballs, or even remotely sexy, instead they’re rather taciturn, dyspeptic men who fail to buy their families Christmas presents on time and, when they need to relax, solve chess problems.
That’s why these novels succeed and why so many readers
have pushed quickly through the series: they feel real.
To understand the series, it helps to have historical context. In the mid-sixties, readers basically knew two kinds of crime writing, the cozy, puzzle-focused “Golden Age” crime novels, and the action-packed paperbacks of the hard-boiled school. Influenced somewhat by Ed McBain’s early 87th precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö aimed for something more realistic: to place their crime novels in the larger society, a world where global connections, the sexual revolution, and differently organized families were changing how people lived. They sought to write detectives who were normal people with flaws and fears and failures, and to show how those people did their work to make society better. That’s why these novels succeed and why so many readers have pushed quickly through the series: they feel real. Despite the changes of computers, communications technology, and forensics, they remain fresh, even forty years later.
Roseanna concerns the discovery of a young woman’s body in a canal and how, over six months, Martin Beck and his squad work doggedly to first identify her, then investigate a crime that reaches beyond international boundaries, then entrap her killer. It isn’t easy for them, it isn’t flashy, but the result is compulsively readable.
A book group might enjoy sharing this title together, but an even better discussion might be found by making it part of a one- or multi-meeting Scandinavian crime theme.
I listened to Roseanna in an audiobook from Blackstone Audio (they’ve released the whole series, just as the books are still available from Black Lizard). Tom Weiner gets the everyday tone of the novel perfectly, and the introduction by Henning Mankell puts the authors in context. A 2012 full-cast recording also has an excellent reputation. Wahlöö died in 1975, ending the series and the collaboration, but for more about the series and Sjöwall, who has now lived alone for many more years than she and her husband had together, I recommend this excellent 2009 article from the Guardian.