This time our review panelists were asked to review Roseanna, the first book in the series that is said to have inspired many of the future greats, including Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. If you’ve read the same book and want to comment then please do!
Antony Jones writes:
Originally written in the 1960’s by the Swedish author Maj Sjowall and her partner Per Wahlöö, Roseanna is a defining point in the genre of crime fiction, not only founding the award winning ten book series that feature Martin Beck – all of which have been made into films – but influencing many authors including Stieg Larsson (author of the Girl with the Dragon tattoo), Henning Mankell (author of the Kurt Wallander series) and Jo Nesbo (author of the Harry Hole series).
It all starts with a body, dredged up from the sludge of a lock near Sweden’s Lake Vattern. Naked and unknown, there are no clues to her identity or reasons why she had been killed. Martin Beck is called from Stockholm to assist the authorities in trying to find who she was and the identity or her murderer. One of the defining characteristics of the novel is the dogged realism – the fact that month’s pass before things actually happen on the case and it’s a process of time-consuming legwork that actually moves things along.
During these early chapters time is set aside to learn about the character and personality of Martin Beck – an unhappily married father of one who struggles with health issues and seems to suffer from a certain amount of desensitisation, floating through his life without too many strong feelings about anything. This everyday character – a realistic someone who you could quite easily meet in the street really grounds the novel and creates an incredibly realistic voice. Ironically it’s this sense of normality which really helps to set the novel apart, bringing to life the hunt for the killer – not with lots of high speed car chases and manly chest pounding but with actual police work by normal, yet gifted people. The pace picks up once they get their first real break and the focus moves back to the story at hand and from then on stays fairly well routed to the task of bringing the killer to ground.
Apart from the lack of inclusion of 21st century technology (smart phones, laptops etc) the novel has aged incredibly well, you really wouldn’t believe that it was written way back in 1965 and it still retains a very fresh feeling. The prose itself is neat, structured and matter of fact – no time is wasted with unnecessary flower language, lengthy descriptions or exposition, there is in fact no wasted space at all and the simple use of grammar is outstanding.
Roseanna is as much a window on the culture and life of 1960’s Sweden as it is a crime novel and learning about this rich culture along with meeting Martin Beck for the first time was an experience I very much enjoyed.
Helen Lowry writes:
The story begins with the discovery of a naked girl’s body. Nobody has any idea who she is and so sets the scene for painstaking detective work, firstly trying to find the identity of the victim and secondly, the identity of the killer. Martin Beck, always called by his full name, is called in to help the local police. He is a good detective, very hard working, patient and thorough, with the usual sad home life. Yes, he has a wife and family, but one wonders if he really wants them. He thinks more than he says.
If you are looking for a fast moving story, then this is not the book for you. However, it is big on detail and procedure. Painstaking procedure at times, keeping in with Beck’s character. If nothing else, this story has a different approach to police work. Hard graft, as opposed to the fast, inspirational ideas that you see today in crime fiction. Also, the lack of blood and gore, the body appearing in the first line of the book, in such a simple statement of fact. A plus for me, a body so soon!
You also have to remember when this story was set, way before the internet and such technology. All the books, a series of ten, were written by a husband and wife team, writing late after the children were in bed.
Clues are hard to come by; hours spent watching the suspect, which are not even fruitful. But there is nothing like the dogged determination of a group of policemen who are convinced they know the killer, and are equally determined to seek justice for the victim.
Overall, I liked this book. After a slow start, it built up to a worthwhile conclusion. I think my own reservations at the beginning, matched the frustrations of the investigation. But, it shows how most police work really is – tedious, laborious and slow going, waiting for the eventual breakthrough.
I don’t think this style is for everyone, but I would like to read more from the same series.
Anne Cater writes:
Roseanna was written in 1965 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a husband and wife team from Sweden. Sjowall and Wahloo sat down and planned a ten part series featuring Detective Martin Beck, they wrote alternative chapters once their children were in bed each night.
This is a fairly straight forward murder mystery and begins with the discovery of a young woman’s body, dredged up from Lake Vattern, in a small Swedish town. After a medical examination it becomes clear that this is a case of murder – the woman was strangled and sexually assaulted. Detective Martin Beck is drafted in the help the local police force.
Martin Beck is a somewhat gloomy character, he says little, but thinks a lot. It is difficult for the reader to get into his mindset, he is aloof but not unfriendly. He has a difficult relationship with his wife and children, preferring to spend what little free time he has either doing puzzles or sitting alone.
This is not a fast-paced thriller, but a story that slowly works it’s way through the police investigation. Fans of
modern-day crime stories may be frustrated by the speed of Martin Beck’s detecting, it often takes him an hour just to get a telephone connection to America. This is 1960s Sweden, long before the days of internet, mobile phones and faxes, and although the story can never really be classed as ‘thrilling’ it is a complex and intelligent look at how police procedures of that era.
On the whole, I enjoyed this story but my main criticism would be around the dialogue which often felt quite formal and unemotional – I’m not sure if this is down to the translation, or the style of the authors. I also got increasingly irritated by the use of Martin Beck’s full name throughout the story. Most of the other characters, certainly the other police officers were referred to by their surnames only. I’m not sure why the lead character needed to be referred to by his full name – and why so often?
Martin Beck reminds me a little of a Swedish Inspector Banks – from Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire detective series. He’s quiet and studious, smokes too much, over thinks things and struggles with relationships.
I’m not sure that I will rush to read the other nine books in the series, but acknowledge that Martin Beck was most definitely the inspiration for modern-day crime authors such as Henning Mankell and Jonathan Franzen.
Lyn Bosomworth writes:
The story builds quite slowly with no real surprises. A standard tale of murder (when a body is found in the canal) which is easy to follow. You can put the book down and return to it later with ease. Old fashioned in a nostalgic way – I had to laugh because on virtually every page someone lights up a cigarette – reminded me of my youth! The characters are solid but a bit mundane especially Martin Beck who comes across as totally work orientated with little interest for his wife and family. Not someone I could warm to particularly.
A very easy holiday read as it is not too challenging. It plods along nicely and picks up speed a little towards the end when the killer is discovered.