I’m reading through the mystery novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, set in Sweden and written between 1965 and 1975. The earlier ones are a bit dated (the term “nymphomaniac” now seems dredged up from antiquity) and the authors’ Marxist beliefs are sometimes editorially inserted without sublety. But the books are fundamentally very well-written police procedurals. Ahead of their time in terms of gritty realism when first released, they are still well worth reading today.
The novels’ Detective Martin Beck (later promoted to Inspector) is an early version of a now classic character: a decent, driven, homicide investigator whose private life is sacrificed to his job. At the beginning, he is married with two young children. Later in the novels, he divorces and has a turbulent but essentially loving relationship with his grown daughter. Yes—Beck was around before Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender. Beck leads a team of colleagues who are all well-drawn and believable, complete with individual quirks and flaws.
One of the things the Beck novels excel at is the background details of the characters’ day-to-day lives and their social structures. These details add to the stories’ realism (you can’t make this stuff up) and also create wry social commentary about the complex institutions humans create. At the beginning of Roseanna, a canal has begun to clog up and boats are having a hard time getting through:
… It wasn’t hard to see that something had to be done. As early as May, the Canal Company requisitioned a dredging machine from the Engineering Board. The papers were passed from one perplexed civil servant to another and finally remitted to the Swedish National Shipping and Navigation Administration. The Shipping and Navigation Administration thought that the work should be done by one of the Civil Engineering Board’s bucket dredging machines. But the Civil Engineering Board found that the Shipping and Navigation Administration had control over bucket dredging machines and in desperation made an appeal to the Harbor Commission in Norrköping, which immediately returned the papers to the Shipping and Navigation Administration, which remitted them to the Civil Engineering Board, at which point someone picked up the telephone and dialed an engineer who knew all about bucket dredging machines.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö were a smart, politically aware couple who decided to write ten books in ten years. They wrote alternating chapters. And their plan was that the books would hold up a mirror to the problem of increasing violence in Swedish society—a reflection and a warning. Their novels succeeded in gaining an audience in a small way at first and in increasing numbers over the decades since. Whether anyone heeded their warnings about the worsening social problems is hard to say.
Here is another period piece: this one from England, a decade later. The six-episode television series Out was made in 1978. Frank Ross (Tom Bell) is out of prison after an eight-year sentence and is looking for the person who grassed on him.
The clothing and hair styles can only be described as wonderfully seventies. The dialogue can be hard to follow, as it’s full of the jargon of the era used by people who make their living through crime, ranging from petty to significant, and who survive by their street smarts. You can follow the meaning of conversations by the context, though it makes you realize how fast language changes and how difficult it can be to understand subcultures.
Outside of the gang and associates, Detective Inspector Bryce (Norman Rodway) is waiting until Frank makes a mistake, so that he can put him back inside. But the viewer’s sympathies are with Frank, if with anyone—we’re not sure that Bryce’s motives are pure.
Women are relegated to secondary roles. It is a man’s world where male activities are the important ones, leaving the women to wait around and accept offhand treatment. Frank’s lover Anne (Lynn Farleigh) is an unsatisfactory character who appears to have no life independent of a man and there is no obvious chemistry between her and Frank, even in the sort-of-love-scenes. Frank’s wife Eve (Victoria Fairbrother) is mentally ill and is in a home. It’s not clear what this adds to the story, other than some unresolved complexity.
Watch this for the late seventies feel and the awareness of moral grey areas, less common when this series was made.
Dessert at Cotto: Lemon Pannacotta. A work of art on the plate, with a variety of textures on the palate—the smooth tartness of the pannacotta, the yielding crunch of the pistachios, the shattering crunch of the thin butterscotch cookie shard, the melt-in-the-month meringue with a lemon cream filling. And more! This is many desserts in one.