Monday, February 21, 2011

Roseanna: A Martin Beck Mystery / by Maj Sjowell

Though modern times have seen the emergence and continuing wave of crime fiction from Scandinavia, it wasn't long ago that few would have lent scant appraisal to a detective novel originating from countries like Sweden, Norway or Denmark. Now it's almost the other way around. Highlighted by the mammoth
success of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, "Nordic Noir" has gained a prominent place in mystery circles, new titles and authors seeming to emerge every year with intriguing plots and characters moored in the generally cold and dark atmosphere of the region. But before the Millenium Trilogy, or any of the other notable works, there was the husband and wife writing team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Their Martin Beck mysteries burst onto the scene in 1965 with Roseanna and continued the series until 1975 when Wahloo died. The Laughing Policeman even won an Edgar in 1970. Roseanna is a book tinged with intrigue, fascination and suspense, subtly doing what so many other mystery authors have tried and failed at over the years to accomplish: describe people and society tangled up in hostilities which inevitably lead to violence, crime and punishment.
One summer in the lakes region of Sweden, a young woman is dredged up in a canal, dead and presumably murdered. An autopsy confirms that she was also molested. Nothing is known about her origin and with no one coming forward with any information, the case soon grows cold. Detective Martin Beck of the country's Special Homicide Commission is about to shelve it when, through a near accident, it's discovered that the girl is an American tourist named Roseanna McGraw. With aid from Interpol, Beck and his subordinates are able to trace the girl back to her permanent residence in Lincoln, Nebraska where she worked as a librarian. Having no way to conduct an investigation overseas, the Swedes rely on American Detective Lieutenant Kafka to interview McGraw's friends and neighbors, soon learning that the girl was something of a free-spirited libertine who'd been traveling across Europe alone following a falling out with her roommate. She had been aboard a Swedish canal cruise ship at the time of her death.

The new information leads Beck and his department to narrow the suspects down to passengers aboard the ship and finally to a man they think might have done it. But without any evidence they'll need to catch him in the act. Roseanna has been called one of the best police procedurals ever written with Martin Beck listed among the great fictional detectives of literary history. It's a very concise book with noticeably little extraneous material interfering with the plot. It's also pretty dark and graphic. Almost forecasting the thematic associations their successors would incorporate a generation later, the authors portray Sweden as a very sedated country on its surface, its citizens rather passive and reserved to a point. But beneath this somber veneer lies a world where the darkest human evils are capable of being unleashed and where crimes of the most heinous nature inevitably crop up. Beck himself is a character who mirrors this dichotomy. At once a tranquil family man whose henpecking wife never lets him alone, he's also a master investigator, methodical and meticulous until the moment of critical engagement when his skillful maneuvers extract the truth. (MYS SJOWALL)

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