I bought this book a couple of years ago when I first started getting interested in translated crime fiction (for the record my first one was a Larsson but Asa rather than Stieg). I rescued the book from my TBR pile today because it’s going be In The Spotlight at Margot Kinberg’s excellent crime fiction blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist this coming week.
On a summer’s day in Sweden the body of a young woman is dredged from a lake. Roseanna depicts in realistic detail the process of identifying first the woman and then her killer.
It’s a bit shameful in crime fiction circles to have to admit to never having heard of the ten Martin Beck books before a couple of years ago, let alone acknowledging that I’ve never read one until now. Like Peter from Detectives Beyond Borders, one of my immediate and overwhelming sensations as I started reading was that I was discovering the source material for many of the characters & writing styles that these books inspired in the more recently published works I am more familiar with. From that perspective alone the book was a delight to read.
But there is, of course, much more than that or else the book and its series mates would not still be being re-issued every few years. The thing that struck me most about the style of the book was its realism. Policing is depicted as a slow process in which the vast bulk of the time was spent on activities and leads that would ultimately prove to go nowhere. Of course in 1965 this was even more true than it is today as communicating with other police forces and international jurisdictions was all done via physical post and the occasional unintelligible trans-Atlantic phone call.
Martin Beck too is realistic, perhaps a little too much so. If the phrase ‘dour Swede’ has been over-used since Scandinavian crime fiction has become flavour of the month then surely the blame must lie mostly at the feet of the rarely smiling, crowd hating, always ill, never wanting to go home Martin Beck. As a characterisation I think he’s marvelous but as a human being I’d rather not be stuck in an elevator for any great length of time with him. However his dogged persistence in doing the work that needed to be done regardless of how time consuming and potentially fruitless it might be, is quite wonderful. And there are glimpses of a very dry humour in the book though I did get the feeling these were being rationed by the authors in the way that a strict parent might ration a child’s sweets.
The edition of the book I read had an introduction by Henning Mankell in which he discussed his own joy at reading the book when it was first released and described Sjowall and Wahloo’s very clear plan to use “crime and criminal investigation as a mirror of Swedish society…they realised there was a huge, unexplored territory in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism”. In Roseanna the authors tackled the nature of bureaucracy, the rise of consumerism and even used the nature of the crime itself in a country that prided itself on being the kind of place where such things did not happen with a subtlety that I would dearly love to see more of in modern fiction.
I do have a minor grizzle about this translation being a bit too full of modern Americanisms, for example ‘vamp’ being used as a verb, to be totally authentic to the book’s time and place and I would be curious to read a contemporary translation. But that is a minor gripe about an otherwise enjoyable reading experience and I would heartily recommend the book to fans of modern police procedurals who want to know more about the history of this fine art form.
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My rating 3.5/5
Translator Lois Roth; Publisher Harper Perennial [this edition 2006, original edition 1965]; ISBN 9780007232833; Length 245 pages
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