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Who the Heck is Martin Beck?

Posted on Wednesday, December 19, 2012 by Campbell_Library_Staff

Do you know who Martin Beck is?

Long before there was the Girl with the dragon tattoo, Inspector Kurt Wallander or Inspector van Veeteren, there was Inspector Martin Beck.

If you are a fan of well written Scandinavian crime novels, and you haven’t heard of Martin Beck, then you are in for a treat – ten treats to be precise. Full of biting social commentary, irony and sly humor, the Martin Beck novels (known collectively as "The Story of a Crime"), published between 1965 and 1975, were written by the Socialist husband and wife team of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, considered to be the grandmasters and founders of modern Scandinavian crime fiction. Like Larsson and Mankell, they had both worked as journalists and were active in leftist politics.

Martin Beck is the precursor and prototype for the portrayal of many of the Scandinavian (not to mention British or even American) detectives that followed: melancholy, sullen, troubled. Indeed, Henning Mankell has said that his character Kurt Wallander could never have existed without the example of Martin Beck.

I first started reading them as dog-eared used paperbacks back in the early 1990s, and was immediately hooked. These tightly plotted police procedurals follow Martin Beck and his squad room team of colorful characters that develop from book to book, revealing another aspect of their quirky personalities and habits (the sarcastic glutton, the black sheep of a very rich family, the unimaginative but hard-working policeman, the dull detective noted for his photographic memory, who insists on 10 hours of sleep every night, and who seems to always be in the rest-room when someone needs him, the Keystone Kops antics of a pair of lazy beat cops) as they meticulously solve grisly crimes set in the seamier, corrupt side of 1960s and 70s Swedish society that, while supposedly championing social democracy, was sliding away from its welfare ideal.

Until recently, they had (unfortunately) gone out of print. Thanks to the incredible recent interest in Scandinavian crime fiction, these wonderful books are back in print, and are all available in the Santa Clara County Library District. We have the books, the audio CDs, as well as the original Swedish television programs on DVD, and even an American-made movie from 1973 (with Walter Matthau) based on Wahlöö and Sjöwall’s Edgar winning fourth book in the series, The Laughing Policeman.

I would strongly suggest reading them in order, beginning with Roseanne and concluding with The Terrorists. Read them and you will see just how much influence they had on Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and other Scandinavian crime writers.

Series titles in order:
Roseanna (1965)
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)
The Man on the Balcony (1967)
The Laughing Policeman (1968)
The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)
Murder at the Savoy (1970)
The Abominable Man (1971)
The Locked Room (1972)
Cop Killer (1974)
The Terrorists (1975)

Tagged: Book Blog, undefined, Campbell News, Detective and Mystery Stories, Martin Beck, Mystery Fiction, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, Police - Sweden - Stockholm - Fiction, Scandinavian Crime Writers