Monday, December 24, 2007

Murder at the Savoy: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

It has been more than a year since I read (and of course reviewed) The Locked Room by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. And while the template is the same, the police procedural riveting as ever, and the humour just as pithy and black, there are a couple of aspects in Savoy that are a touch atypical.

The first is the rather dramatic, set-piece start, quite unlike the beginnings of the other books in the series. A businessman shot publicly in a prominent hotel is unusual for this author-couple, known for their penchant for non-drama. The second is the policemen wondering about the motive for the crime right at the beginning – it seemed a bit artificial that should start talking about it even before getting the basics facts in. But once Martin Beck gets in, it’s back to business as usual, happily (or grimly, as it were). In the authors’ own words,

Whereas everything happened on Monday and something on Tuesday, nothing at all happened on Wednesday. Nothing that furthered the investigation, anyway.

Murder at the Savoy is a typically gripping police procedural thriller from the dependent and consistent Swedish couple – a case of a sudden murder of a prominent not-so-popular industrialist being cracked by the police (especially Martin Beck) in his thorough, pedestrian, risk-averse manner. A typical dramatic start, a detailed investigation and a logical and unsurprising denouement.

The Sjöwall / Wahlöö staples are present in good measure – the social commentary; the rant at the Swedish political system; humour in the form of the dig at the secret police and the parody of the plainclothesman; a support cast that’s not always supportive; and a typically bleak summary, as felt by Martin Beck. (Caution: plot spoilers here; skip this excerpt if you plan to read the book.)

Moreover, a case has been wound up.

He should have felt good, but it didn’t seem that way.

Viktor Palmgren was dead.

Gone forever and missed by no one, save for a handful of international swindlers and representatives of suspect regimes in countries far away. They would soon learn to do business with Mats Linder instead, and so things would be, to all intents and purposes, unchanged.

Charlotte Palmgren was now very rich and practically independent, and as far as one could see, Linder and Hoff-Jensen had a brilliant future in store.

Hampus Broberg would probably be able to avoid another arrest, and a staff of well-paid lawyers would show that he hadn’t misappropriated or tried to smuggle stocks out of the country or done anything else illegal. His wife and daughter were already in safety in Switzerland or Liechtenstein with fat bank accounts at their disposal. Helena Hansson would probably receive some sort of sentence, but certainly not so severe that she couldn’t set herself up in her former profession within the fairly near future.

There remained the shipyard caretaker, who in the course of time would be tried for second-degree, maybe first-degree murder, and then have to rot away the best years of his life in a prison cell.

Chief Inspector Martin Beck didn’t feel good at all.

When I turned over the last page of the book, I felt a little disappointed. Savoy is not the best book from the Sjöwall / Wahlöö duo. Was it the dramatic and forced opening? Was it that there was no great insight unearthed by the police? Was the perpetrator too normal to be guilty? Was it that the narrative had too many asides? (The Keystone Kops angle [not the original, let me hasten to add], I must confess, appeared to be interesting from a humour perspective, but it was all-too-brief a cameo.) Or are my expectations from Sjöwall and Wahlöö that much higher, considering The Locked Room and The Laughing Policeman, among others?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursday: G. K. Chesterton

(Caution: major plot spoilers ahead)

There was a certain charm to Father Brown, arguably G. K. Chesterton’s most famous creation. I could never be sure whether the Father Brown stories were crime fiction, whether they were parodies of crime fiction or whether they were just plain humour. Whatever they were, they were delightful. So it was with the same expectation that I picked up The Man Who Was Thursday. However, the sub-title, A Nightmare, suggested something ominously different. And when C. S. Lewis opined that the book was a powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each of us encounters in his single-handed struggle with the universe, my fears were exacerbated.

Was I in for some bleak reading, I wondered. I could’ve been, if I had read the book when it was first released almost exactly a century ago, when the anarchists were a real group. But stripped of that social surrounding (thankfully, from a reader’s perspective), Thursday read more like a parody of the anarchists than the depressing commentary it could have been.

The plot is simple enough – it is about the (intended) activities of a group of seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who name themselves after the days of the week. Together, they constitute a Central Anarchist Council. But that is not really the point of Thursday. It is the ideas it explores, using the characters.

Many small but significant threads make Thursday a true classic. An unmistakable Christian allegory jumps out from the book. How else would you explain the chief of the anarchists going by the name of Sunday? Who does he represent? Make what you will of this conversation between two of the council members about Sunday.

“Professor,” he cried, “it is intolerable. Are you afraid of this man?”

The professor lifted his heavy lids, and gazed at Syme with large, wide-open, blue eyes of an almost ethereal honesty.

“Yes, I am,” he said mildly. “So are you.”

Syme was dumb for an instant. Then he rose to his feet erect, like an insulted man, and thrust the chair away from him.

“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him on the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear that I would pull him down.”

Then there is the whole idea of double agents. As the book moves on, the revelations become predictable. Surely the man who produced the Father Brown stories would have foreseen this? So possibly the intent is something else? A commentary on the hypocrisy of the anarchists’ movement perhaps? A parody on the real identity of man may be?

And then there are those brief but delightful asides. The debate on the nature of poetry right at the beginning is one example, including this comparison between poets and anarchists.

“An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to anything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

And while artists and anarchists share similarities, what about criminals and philosophers?

We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life, they mere wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people’s.

A bit glib and extreme perhaps, but makes for good reading nevertheless.

The fleeting comment on German philosophy is another gem.

But perhaps I misunderstood the delicacies of your German philosophy. Perhaps policeman is a relative term. In an evolutionary sense, sir, the ape fades so gradually into the policeman, that I myself can never detect the shade. The monkey is the only policeman that may be. Perhaps a maiden lady on Clapham Common is the only policeman that might have been. I don’t mind being the policeman that might have been. I don’t mind being anything in German thought.

Of course, an undercurrent of humour pervades the entire book, including a hilarious side conversation in sign language, which to me is the high point of the book.

Chesterton seems to express his opinion on anarchy through the voice of one of the characters: anarchy is childishness. No wonder he has handled it in such a light manner in Thursday.