Over the weekend I read The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. This was the tenth and last book in the Martin Beck series that I have read, although it is seventh book they wrote. Usually reading a Scandinavian crime fiction series out of order is due to the eccentric publishing order, but in my case it was simply due to availability of the books in English. I read my first Martin Beck books about thirty years ago, and I might now go back and read all ten again in the correct order; they are that good.
When Chief Inspector Stig Nyman is sliced up with a carbine bayonet while ill in a Stockholm Hospital, Martin Beck and colleague Einar Ronn don't get much sleep as they investigate a long list of those who might have a grudge against the policeman. When Lennart Kollberg, who knew Nyman in the Army, and the abrasive Gunvald Larsson join the hunt for the perpetrator the action moves rapidly on to an exciting and dramatic denouement.
The theme of this book is the abuse of power by the state, in this case police officers, against vulnerable and apparently powerless citizens. When those citizens decide to fight back the authorities are caught off guard. This is a theme very relevant today, and something that has been taken up more recently by other Scandinavian crime writers.
Perhaps the brass realized that in the long run it would prove untenable simply to insist that everyone involved in sociology was actually a communist or some other subversive.
Of course Marxists Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo make you feel sympathetic to the underdog perpetrator, as they did in the previous book in the series Murder at the Savoy. The real villain there was unfeeling corrupt capitalism, in this book it is the 'look after our own' brutal police force backed by all the power of the state.
Martin Beck looked him in the eye and said reluctantly, 'He was a bad policeman.'
"Wrong,' said Kollberg. 'Now listen. Nyman was one hell of a bad policeman. He was a barbaric son of a bitch of the very worst sort.'
Written nearly forty years ago The Abominable Man is a simple uncomplicated short [216 pages] police procedural but the character development and theme are dealt with so cleverly that it is a classic read.
Sjowall and Wahloo were among the very few writers who could blend humour and tragedy so successfully into a concise story, leaving you satisfied but also wanting so much more of their addictive characters.
'If we'd known what society was coming to, we wouldn't have had any children at all. But they've been leading us on all these years.'
'Who?' said Ronn.
'The politicians. The party leaders. The ones we thought were on our side. Just gangsters, all of them.'