The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

fire engineThe Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Originally published as Brandbilen som försvann, 1969
Sphere Books, 1973
I bought my copy of the book
Martin Beck book 5

I’ve arrived at the halfway point in the Martin Beck series and I’m still surprised by the books.

  1. They feel contemporary, despite the references to late 1960’s political crises and the Vietnam War.
  2. The plotting, even when the pace mimics the first installment, Roseanna, was still shocking.
  3. I’m surprised that I can keep so many detectives straight. It’s not just Beck and his team that’s made up of distinct characters: the investigation calls on a detective or two in another city and those characters are distinct as well.
  4.  I appreciate a few homages to the series that I see in Henning Mankell and Leif G.W. Persson now. Persson’s Bäckström is an extreme version of the character Gunnar Larsson in this book. The neverending car smuggling ring that Wallander investigates is central to this particular episode of the Beck series.
  5. I’m taken aback by how young the sex workers in this book are.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared focuses on a horrible fire that kills a number of people in an apartment building as well as someone’s suicide that happened around the same time. It’s not surprising that the two events are related: it seems especially obvious in a book as short as this. There’s no room for plot digressions. The arson scenes and explanations of the fire investigation are incredibly vivid and harrowing. The actual investigation is slow in parts and then incredibly fast in others, and the fact that the arson was so extreme amps up the tension throughout the story. Finally, I’m particularly fond of this installment because we actually get some of Beck’s backstory- why he became a policeman, his childhood, and his family life today. It’s about time.

On a side note, I thought of Moira’s blog during a description of a particular blue corduroy suit that is very 1969.

I continue to be a huge fan of this series, and I’m inclined to finish reading this series soon. It might not make for the most varied blog fodder, but reading a few authors in bulk seems to be my latest reading pattern.

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

laughing policeman

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Translated by Alan Blair

Originally published as Den skrattande polisen, 1968

This edition: Vintage Books, April 1977

I’m very happy to get back to the Martin Beck series, even if I was a little weirded out by the cover of this book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a huge assault rifle on the cover. The cover stands in stark contrast to the source of the title, a 1920s novely record called The Adventures of the Laughing Policeman.

The Laughing Policeman is a compact story about a horrible crime rife with social commentary. The political commentary seems to grow as the series goes on. The crime at the center of the story is the mass shooting of 9 people on a double decker bus on a cold rainy night on the border of Stockholm and the suburb of Solna, the same night that most of the police force is at an anti-Vietnam protest. One of the murder victims was Stenström, a young member of Beck’s squad, but no one knows what he was doing on the bus.

The Martin Beck books tend to be heavy on the procedural part of a police procedural: it’s not just interrogations, but it’s scientific tests and strategy sessions. Because the crime was so large and garnered so much media attention, there are lots of  characters as Beck’s squad receives reinforcements from all over Sweden.

It’s a compact story, which is a great change of pace. It feels quite contemporary, which speaks to the couple’s influence on current crime writing. But parts of the story definitely place it in the 1960’s:  Gunnarson’s rants are pretty retrograde, on purpose; and there is a bit of victim-blaming that reminded me very much to the first book in the series, Roseanna. This is my favorite entry in the series so far.





The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

man balconyThe Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Translated by Alan Blair in 1968
Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard, 2009
Originally published as Mannen pa balkongen, 1967

This is the third book in the Martin Beck series by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and according to the introduction by Jo Nesbø (one of the marketing bits on the cover of my edition), it’s based on a true story. It’s a police procedural focusing on brutal crimes committed against very young girls in June 1967 in Stockholm, and there is also a series of very violent muggings that occupy the first half of the book.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s crimes are always shockingly violent in the books I’ve read so far in the series, and the process of investigating always seems to be tough and time-consuming on Beck and on his team members Kollberg and others. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also bring in a couple younger police officers, and it gives them an opportunity to talk about why different people join the police force and what they accomplish day to day and throughout their careers.

I appreciated the brevity: the crimes were heinous enough, and I’m not sure I could have been able to keep reading about such a violent criminal on the loose if the book had been longer.

There are a couple spots where the translation feels out of date (talk of “stoolies,” for example), it’s strange to see so few female police officers (and in this book it’s only a mention of one), and times that I’m perplexed yet again why there is so much focus on young unmarried women character’s love lives, but otherwise the book feels contemporary.

I bought my copy of the book

Other reviews appear in Crimepieces and Reactions to Reading.


The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

man who went up in smoke

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Joan Tate
Vintage, 1969, originally published as Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966
Martin Beck book 2
Source: personal copy

I started the Martin Beck series about a year ago because it’s inspired so many other Swedish authors, and it’s turned into one of my favorite series, which is surprising because I tend to read more contemporary books with strong female protagonists. This series, so far, does not meet those criteria, but I don’t mind. 

Like the first book in the series Roseanna, the title character is a mystery to Martin Beck and his investigatory team, but unlike Roseanna, the case starts as a missing persons case instead of a murder case. Beck is asked to pursue an unofficial investigation into the disappearance of a journalist named Alf Mattson who was last seen in Budapest. Beck cuts short his family vacation at a remote, phone-less island in Sweden with his family to travel to Budapest, and the Budapest section of the book is very interesting. It’s a vivid setting and a memorable atmosphere as Beck is followed by mysterious people during his time there. I don’t want to discuss the plot more because it’s such a brief novel. The only parts of the story that dated the novel, besides the trip to communist-era Hungary, were mentions of Dacron clothing, going to see James Bond films, and the prevalent smoking.

Finally, I have a couple reactions to the writing. It feels strange to call a book that’s almost fifty years old fresh, but it feels brisk and crisp to me even though the investigation takes time. I think the brief chapters as well as the shift of the action from Stockholm to Budapest keep the story moving along. Finally, it’s remarkable to me that Sjöwall and Wahlöö alternated writing chapters because it’s not obvious to me that the novel was written by two people. The tone and style seem uniform to me.

Other reviews appear in CrimepiecesSmithereens, and Mysteries in Paradise.

Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

I was inspired to read the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö by Sarah’s post at Crimepieces, and once I became aware of the series, I found references to it in many places.  I don’t usually read crime novels from the 1960’s, but I’m making an exception because this series is an inspiration for tons of Swedish crime writers as well as crime writers of other nationalities.

Martin Beck, always referred to by his full name in the novel, is a prone-to-illness, dogged detective in his early forties.  He tells himself that he has “three of the most important virtues a policeman can have…You are stubborn, logical, and completely calm.”  And like many other police investigator protagonists after him, he is unhappily married and somewhat depressed.

The novel centers into the murder and rape investigation of a woman who was unearthed in a canal in a dredging operation in an area known for tourists on Lake Vattern.  It’s a long and disheartening investigation that lasts over six months, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö  let us into all the details of the search first for the identity of the murder victim and then of her killer.

What struck me first of all about the book is that the opening chapter focuses on the bureaucracy involved in the dredging of the canal and the police force.  It’s a huge tipoff that Sjöwall and Wahlöö  are interested in more than characters and plot:  they are interested in showing Swedish society and its institutions.  Unlike other police procedurals, Roseanna doesn’t just feel like a series of police interviews and interrogations either.

The other thing that sticks out about this book is the length and the sense of hopelessness in the investigation.  Part of the reason the investigation takes so long is that it takes place before the era of email, fax machines, or any other communication faster than a telegram.  The other reason is that it takes quite a long time to identify the murder victim as Roseanna.

I was a bit put off by the sense that Roseanna herself was on trial during some of the police investigation:  her sex life is really not at issue when she is the victim of rape and murder.  Also, I was a bit shocked by how the police decided to solve the crime.  It seemed very risky, but I also don’t know the intricacies of Swedish criminal law to know just how unethical the operation was.

Other reviews of Roseanna can be found at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reactions to Reading.


Roseanna Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth

Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard (translated in 1967, 2nd edition, 2008), originally published in Sweden in 1965

Source: library e-book

Two Swedish Crime Novels

I read a couple Swedish crime novels this month in succession, and writing this post takes me back a few years when I used to read a lot of them. Today’s post is about The Abominable Man and Firewall, a dash of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Henning Mankell.

The Abominable Man is a story about police brutality and how it gets entrenched in the police force. The book is nearly 50 years old, and it reads like it could have been written today. It’s a short and forceful story. It opens with a brutal murder of an ill retired police officer, and the climax of the book is a lengthy set-piece of a brutal attack on a number of police officers in Stockholm.

It’s a great, taut story, and I didn’t entirely expect the level of violence there was, in part because of this snippet about the painstaking process of criminal investigation early in the book:

Police work is built on realism, routine, stubbornness, and system. It’s true that a lot of difficult cases are cleared up by coincidence, but it’s equally true that coincidence is an elastic concept that mustn’t be confused with luck or accident. In a criminal investigation, it’s a question of weaving the net of coincidence as fine as possible. And experience and industry play a larger role there than brilliant inspiration. A good memory and ordinary common sense are more valuable qualities than intellectual brilliance. p. 31

Additionally, I remember Roseanna, the first installment in the series, being quite a slow story in terms of action. This is a great and interesting and scathing set of books, at least what I’ve read so far.

Next, I read Firewall by Henning Mankell, which while a police procedural spends a lot of time on just one inspector vs. The Abominable Man, which focused on a number of detectives. Firewall is a bit slow in comparison: Mankell spends plenty of time with the depressed and burnt out Wallander who is contemplating retirement. There are also several mentions of prior cases in prior books, so the fact that it’s been over 3 years since I read a book in this series was not a hindrance. It’s a story about some seemingly unrelated murders that are linked (of course), and as the case progresses, it involves a global conspiracy. It’s not a conspiracy-thriller though: it’s firmly a set of murder investigations.

Firewall is interesting to because it involves hackers years before The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, and it’s a sort of period piece because technology in 1998 is a world away from technology today. I must say, I prefer something a bit more thriller-like or with a tauter plot at this point in my reading life, though.

I recommend both books highly, and The Abominable Man is going on my list of best reads of the year.

The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö , translated by Thomas Teal

2nd Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard edition

Originally published as Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle , 1971

Book 7 in Martin Beck/ Story of a Crime series

Source: I bought my copy.

Firewall by Henning Mankell, translated by Ebba Segerberg

Originally published as Brandvägg , 1998

Book 9 in Wallander series

Source: I bought my copy.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

quicksandQuicksand is a courtroom drama centered on the trial of an eighteen year old girl charged with murder during a school shooting. The story opens in the classroom, which is a classic gambit to hook the reader because it’s unclear who all did the shooting and who all died (it’s a brief opening interlude). A good chunk of the beginning is a courtroom procedural, and I think it was the strongest part of the book. The book slowed down for me as Maja, the narrator, went into the long background story about her relationship with Sebastian, the boyfriend she allegedly incited to murder.

I thought this book would take a more unreliable narrator turn than it did: it really is a story about a senseless crime spree instead, and in that way it reminded me of Laura Lippman. Ultimately, it’s a book about a hugely unsympathetic group of characters, teenagers and adults, and Maja still remained a mystery to me, which I think is the point. The book is also smart about race and class, which was a welcome part of the story.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Other Press, March 2017

Originally published as Störst av allt

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.


My Favorite Reads of 2015

2015 is the year when I read a lot more older books than usual, and a good chunk of my favorites were not published this year. My list is all crime fiction except for one true-crime book, and it’s heavy on female authors.

  1. Margaret Millar is my favorite discovery of the year. Her books are shorter, more twisted psychological fiction than what I usually read. Beast in View and How Like an Angel were outstanding, and I’ve read a few more that were good as well.
  2. I’m still a fan of the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The two installments I read this year were good in terms of plot, and I”m still hooked because of the bits of Beck’s backstory that came in in these books. I’m a sucker for serialized stories, even if they don’t end on cliffhangers. The Laughing Policeman and The Fire Engine that Disappeared are quite great.
  3. Continuing the theme of series/ authors I love, Anne Holt’s stuff is so good. I’m not blown away by any particular book, but I am hooked on her two series set in Oslo, the Vik/Stubo and Hanne Wilhelmsen books.
  4. My favorite book I read this year that was published this year was In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward. It has great intertwining mysteries involving a current suicide and a long-ago missing-child case and interesting characters.
  5. Jayne Keeney is my favorite character, still. The Dying Beach was a strong entry in the PI series set in Thailand by Angela Savage.
  6. Mildred Pierce  by James M. Cain was a big surprise. A story about a complicated woman and her complicated daughter. It’s great.
  7. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith was also a surprise to me (it’s been years since I saw the Minghella movie). I have a lot more Highsmith waiting for my on my TBR.
  8. Echoes from the Dead by Johann Theorin was a great first entry in the Öland Quartet.
  9. A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine– ingeniously plotted. She and Millar win the plotting contest among the books I’ve read this year. Also, this book beats Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in terms of criminal undergraduates: Vine’s is more effective because it’s not so long.
  10. This House of Grief by Helen Garner has stayed with me the longest. It’s true-crime following the trial of a man accused of murdering his children, and it’s deeply sad.




Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum


Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Originally published as Evas øye, 1995
Inspector Sejer, book 2

I bought my copy of the book.

I backtracked in my reading of the Inspector Sejer series to read the first installment, Eva’s Eye, also published as In the Darkness, and I really liked it.  The book begins with two unsolved crimes: a stabbed man’s body is found in the river, and it is determined that it’s the body of Egil, a man missing for six months. He disappeared around the time that a prostitute named Maja was murdered, and Sejer investigates these semi-cold crimes for the first third of the book. Then Fossum shifts to Eva Magnus, a struggling artist and single mother who was one of the last people to see the murdered Maja alive and was the person who discovered Egil’s corpse.

I appreciate that Sejer is not as troubled or depressed as lots of other detectives in books I read, though his penchant for working alone is pretty typical. I’m not sure I’ve ever read about such an experienced skydiver, though: over 2000 successful jumps is quite impressive.

Fossum has a great deal of sympathy for Eva, and she also knows how to write creepy and thrilling setpieces. Or maybe I’m especially susceptible to scenes that happen in remote mountain cabins at night: they automatically frighten me.  This book felt juicy in terms of characters and the slide into criminality: there’s much to discuss. Finally, I liked the way Fossum talked about Eva’s artistic process more than I like Louise Penny in the Three Pines series. I could picture Eva’s paintings more vividly than I could Penny’s character’s works.

Other reviews appear in Euro Crime, Reactions to Reading, and Crime Fiction Lover.


To the Top of the Mountain by Arne Dahl

top mountainTo the Top of the Mountain by Arne Dahl, translated by Alice Menzies

Originally published as Upp till toppen av berget (2000)

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, August 2015

Intercrime book 3

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

I’m a fan of this book about a big, major, complicated set of crimes that sees the A-Unit of the first two books in the Intercrime series back together again. Compared to what I’ve been reading lately, it’s bigger, more brutal, and full of characters, as the A-Unit is made up of a large number of investigators. To the Top of the Mountain is in part a police procedural focusing on the elite A-Unit that deals with big crimes of an international nature and in part a sort of conspiracy thriller. It begins with Paul Hjelm and Kerstin Holm investigating a killing in a crowded bar and soon becomes a much larger investigation into drugs and child pornography. It’s difficult subject matter, but thankfully there are lots of plot threads to give the reader a break from the more harrowing parts of the story.

So far my favorite of the series is still the opening book, MisteriosoThe investigation and the novel felt brisker than this one, and the crimes weren’t as hard to read about.  I also think it’s best to start the series from the beginning instead of reading this installment first. There is too much backstory about the detectives and about the A-Unit itself to make this a good starting point.