Book: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Good 1960s Swedish police procedural

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Vintage, 2006 (originally published in Sweden in 1965)
ISBN: 978-0-307-39046-2
212 pages

Roseanna is the first of ten novels by the Swedish partners Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö which feature the police detective Martin Beck. As the book begins, a boat that's dredging a channel in a lake about 150 miles southwest of Stockholm brings up a woman's body. Martin Beck and some colleagues are sent from Stockholm to investigate. But no one has filed a missing-person report for anyone remotely like the dead woman and the police have no luck determining who she was. Without any knowledge of the victim, the police have no way to proceed and the case languishes for months. But then a report comes in from rather far afield. It seems that the woman's name was Roseanna and that she was a tourist and had been traveling on a passenger boat that had passed nearby. With that information in hand, the police begin to make progress.

What follows is a good, if fairly straightforward, police investigation. The book probably seemed fresh in the mid-1960s when it was published (and the Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell suggests that it did in an interesting introduction to this edition) but this isn't the mid-1960s and whether the book is interesting now can't depend on that.

When discussing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, James Lileks said that that book made him think of the Martin Beck novels. And the books are similar in that they both convey a good deal of Swedish atmosphere. But of course the Sweden of the mid-1960s is very different from the Sweden of the turn of the twenty-first century in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And, indeed, Martin Beck is very nearly the polar opposite of Mikael Blomkvist, who is self-assured and always good at relationships. But even if it's a different sort of Swedish atmosphere that comes through, what comes through is interesting.

Take, for example, this bit:

    Martin Beck sat on the green bench in the subway car
    and looked out through the rain-blurred window. He
    thought about his marriage apathetically, but when he
    realized that he was sitting there feeling sorry for
    himself, he took the newspaper out if his trenchcoat
    pocket and tried to concentrate on the editorial page.

    He looked tired and his sunburned skin seemed
    yellowish in the gray light. His face was lean with a
    broad forehead and a strong jaw. His mouth, under his
    short, straight nose, was thin and wide with two deep
    lines near the corners.
    (p. 11)

Or this one:

    Kollberg finished dressing and put his pistol in place.
    He took a quick look at Martin Beck and said: "You
    look depressed. What is it?"

    "Nothing special."
    (pp. 23-24)

Or when Martin Beck is interviewing someone related to the case:

    Martin Beck took a deep breath.

    "Did he make you happy?"


    "Try to answer."

    "You... you are asking such difficult questions. Yes, I think so."
    (p. 166)

Martin Beck has bad relationships with the members of his family, he gets sick a lot, and he sleeps poorly. But he is a very good policeman. The atmosphere in Roseanna isn't as shiny and cosmopolitan as an Ikea countertop but it's interesting and good even if it is a bit dark.

They drank a lot of coffee in Sweden in the 1960s too.

Posted: Wed - August 4, 2010 at 08:46   Main   Category: