Friday, November 12, 2010


What do you read when you are really stressed out? When you want something to bring you back to a state of equilibrium, and not slip into dark depression.
I look at the books on my "read next" TBR shelf, and see I have a personal "Nazi Occupied Poland" reading challenge coming up very soon. That should help me realise that things could be a great deal worse!

But I decided that I would read another book from the Martin Beck series. I always feel a sense of nostalgia for those heady days, twenty years ago, when I searched through Devon's many second hand bookshops for the missing books in my Sjowall/Wahloo collection.
Now we have the marvelous Harper Perennial editions with introductions and informative articles at the end of the books; and above all with font sizes that are readable by the elderly.

I like to save these books up, just as you store a vintage wine that is too good to drink, but now it was time to read another. My out of order reading of Sjowall and Wahloo's ten book series, has now reached number nine for me, actually number six in the series, Murder at the Savoy [1970]. In the introduction Michael Carlson explains the Swedish title; Polis, polis, potatismos; but he also states Sjowall and Wahloo cited Ed McBain's 87th Precinct police procedurals as an influence.
Is this correct? I am not sure they had read any Ed McBain, and in this interview Maj Sjowall only mentions the influence of Georges Simenon and Dashiell Hammett.

Is it just pure nostalgia, or are the Martin Beck books as good as I remember? I ask the same question each time I read one.
Well I have reached page 116 of Murder at the Savoy, and my answer is yes, they are wonderful reads. Despite the differences in police procedure, no computers, no DNA, no mobile phones, and an almost all male police force they have a knack of seeming very relevant to the present day. Above all they obey basic rules for good crime fiction; you must have a good plot, a cast of interesting characters, and mention food.

There was matjes herring on a bed of dill, sour cream and chives. A dish of carp roe with a wreath of diced onion, dill and lemon slices. Thin slices of smoked salmon spread out on fragile lettuce leaves. Sliced hard-boiled eggs. Smoked herring. Smoked flounder. Hungarian salami, Polish sausage. Finnish sausage and liver sausage from Skane. A large bowl of lettuce with lots of fresh shrimps.

But as well as the light humour there is a much heavier social commentary confirming that Sjowall and Wahloo believed the model social democratic society was falling apart even in 1970.

Behind its spectacular topographical facade and under its polished, semi-fashionable surface, Stockholm had become an asphalt jungle, where drug addiction and sexual perversion ran more rampant than ever..........

An impoverished proletariat was also being created, especially among the elderly. Inflation had given rise to one of the highest costs of living in the world, and the latest surveys showed that many pensioners had to live on dog and cat food in order to make ends meet.

The Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

Roseanna [1965] *
The Man who Went Up In Smoke [1966] *
The Man on the Balcony [1967] *
The Laughing Policeman [1968] *
Murder at the Savoy [1970] -reading now
The Abominable Man [1971]- to be read
Cop Killer [1974]*
The Terrorists [1975]*

* Read before I began blogging.
** Reviewed on Crime Scraps
This old blurb that appeared on the cover of Roseanna says it all:
'Sjowall/Wahloo are the best writers of police procedural in the world.' Birmingham Post


Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

Totally agree on all counts, Norman. It is a fantastic series. I recently read the last one (The terrorists), having saved it up for ages, and was so impressed by it, and in particular how it had not dated in any real sense, even on that particular topic.

You are right, and not Michael Carson, about the McBain influences. The authors were writing independently. After the first couple of Beck novels, someone sent S/W a copy of a McBain, having noted the similarities. S/W were so entranced that S persuaded a Swedish publisher to publish Swedish editions with her translating. Definitely not a case of a US influence!

I have not read many McBains, but on the basis of those I have, I would say that there are many significant differences between the series in any event- and that McBain has dated much more.

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman - I think that Martin Beck series is at least as good now as ever - perhaps better. It is one of the truly classic crime fiction series, and I can completely understand why you savour each sip of each book.

Interesting point you bring up, too, about the similarities to McBain. I'd have to agree there are a lot of commonalities. Of course, I see similarities with Mankell and Nesser, too. Thank you for reminding me of that terrific series!

6:49 AM  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I think the Savoy title is quite funny. It doesn´t strike me as very Swedish :D

When I am stressed out, I choose something that doesn´t demand too much of me, e.g. cosy mysteries or police procedurals I expect to enjoy. It could very well be Martin Beck.

I think I have read one McBain, but if Maj Sjöwall doesn´t mention him as part of their influence, I tend to believe she knows best.

"Despite the differences in police procedure, no computers, no DNA, no mobile phones ..." - are you sure you didn´t mean "Because of ..."? :O

7:41 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Somewhere I read that they began writing the series before reading McBain. It was one of those simultaneous things like Leibniz and Newton both inventing calculus and feeling very clever and original. But they ended up translating the 87th precinct series into Swedish, so they were very aware of it, just not necessarily inspired at the start. I do find them quite similar in the ensemble cast and the wry asides.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Karen Russell said...

I'm working my way slowly through the series, having never heard of them until I started blogging. I've done the first two so far and think they're so appealing on so many levels. I hope to make the series stretch out for several years. :D

5:58 AM  
Blogger Bernadette said...

Like Karen I'm only just starting the series (have read the first one and nearly due to read the second). I certainly found the first one very readable and un-dated by its age.

I admire your attitude to stress - look for books that are set in more stressful times. Not sure i can do justice to that approach but do admire it regardless.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Maxine-thanks I was sure I had read that about the 87th Precinct/Martin Beck relationship, but my memory is a bit sloppy.

Dorte- I don't think the British would have got potato, potato, potato head, or whatever the exact translation is. But I agree this sounds like a golden age detective story.

Karen and Bernadette-thanks, you are lucky that you have most of this brilliant series ahead of you.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Certainly the Sjowall/Wahloo books are well-written and timeless, worth reading by every serious mystery reader.

When I am stressed (even by a book, as a recent one I finished), I look for lightness and wit, void of the weight of the world. I read Vanda Symon's "Containment," which was just what I needed to read to move on from the prior stressful book.

Or I would have read a Sjowall/Wahloo book. Or, as I just did, get a Camilleri from the library as they are light and fun, too. Or a Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky or any number of humorous series.

I would never under any circumstances read about the Nazis' occupation of Poland. In fact, I stay away from books set during WWII. (The Jewish side of my family was from Poland, too much baggage on this one, although they all left way before WWII, but they had friends and other relatives there.)

1:30 PM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I just read "Blood Moon," by Garry Disher which got me through a stressful weekend and post-event, where I came home, tuned out and read it. It was a nice, tidy police procedural, without enough character development and plot to suffice.

It did not require extreme thought and was relaxing, with no crazed chase scenes, no elevated blood pressure.

Now, on to Camilleri, fun and easy reading, but with an intelligent edge.

12:06 AM  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oops, meant to say that "Blood Moon," had enough character development and plot to suffice.

It's a good, smooth read.

1:57 PM  

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