Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Locked Room: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

I came back home just before midnight on Sunday (thanks to a 2-hour delay in my flight), but I could not sleep. I still had about 50 pages to go in The Locked Room; I just had to finish it. And what an ending!

The Locked Room is rated by some as the best work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and while I haven’t read all their works to have a substantial view on this, it certainly is the best of the five I have read so far. (The other four I've read are The Laughing Policeman, Roseanna, The Man on the Balcony, and The Man who went up in Smoke.)

The book runs on two parallel streams: Martin Beck investigating a locked room suicide / murder and “Bulldozer” Olsson going after a murder-cum-bank-robbery. The contrast between the methods used by the two of them exemplifies what a police procedure is and what it perhaps is not. Beck goes through the drill, follows every trail until it leads to a new one, and completely avoids making any assumptions or playing any hunches; Olsson, on the other hand, is purely driven by “inspiration” – he starts with a hypothesis, and goes all out to prove himself right.

By the end of the book, both Beck and Olsson succeed, and both of them don’t. The finish leaves you completely stunned, packed as it is with misery, pathos, and a tantalizing sense of incompleteness – depressingly realistic.

The Locked Room has all the other elements that are staple fare from this author duo – the socialistic touches, a sense of forlornness about Stockholm, a conspicuous absence of joy and happiness among the characters, and a diversity of characters that represents a good sweep of the Swedish middle-class. (Notice how there are rarely any rich people in these books?)

Another feature that make the works of Sjöwall and Wahlöö so compellingly readable is the plaintive language (kudos to Paul Britten Austin for the translation of The Locked Room) – a combination of wry humor, bleak reality, and socialistic undertones. The sequence in which Martin Beck extracts the confession from Mauritzon is a classic. But my favorite is this paragraph:

“Martin Beck had been in his profession long enough to know that if something in a report appears incomprehensible, it’s because in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred someone has been careless, made a mistake, is guilty of a slip of the pen, has overlooked the crux of the matter, or lacked the ability to make himself understood.”

It sums up Martin Beck; it sums up Sjöwall and Wahlöö.


Maxine said...

As recommended by Norm/Uriah of Crime Scraps, I recently read the first of the series (Roseanna) and enjoyed it immensely. I have bought the second and third, and look forward to those. Glad to read that the books continue the high standard of the first.

De Scribe said...

I enjoyed Roseanna as well, Maxine. And the other books are just as good. Happy reading.