If I could find a local group, or a class, or convocation of fans who share my passion for classic mysteries, believe me, I would. Embracing the esoteric makes a guy lonely! Honestly, the main reason I became a blogger was to find other weir- er, GAD lovers who view life as one gigantic “Challenge to the Reader,” who believe that a country weekend is incomplete without a nice bloodstain on the library carpet. Believe me, I’m not sharing my opinions on Christie and Company just to amuse myself. (Well . . . yeah, I am, partly!) It’s the interaction between learned folk that excites me, and if some of that could involve real live people, then my therapist would stop shaking his head sadly at me every Friday at four.
So when the spring catalogue for the Stanford University Extended Learning program arrived at my door, my heart leapt when I saw a course being offered for mystery lovers. Eight weeks of reading books and watching films centered around crime! Heaps of opportunity to discuss it all amongst ourselves!
There’s only one catch: this is not a course about classic mystery writers. This one is called Northern Crimes: Scandinavian Murder Mysteries in Literature and Film. Here’s the blurb:
You will gain an understanding of narrative techniques; the history of crime fiction and what distinguishes the Scandinavian output; the geography and geology of the Nordic countries; and heir history, political, social, cultural, and revelatory views of murder mysteries in general. In addition to our intellectual and historical approach, we will enjoy these books and films – and understand why we enjoy them!
My experience with the crime fiction of the fjords is miniscule: I have read The Dragon Trilogy, just like, oh, everyone. I watched some of Wallander –the British version starring Kenneth Branagh – until I grew exhausted from being bombarded with bitter, alcoholic sleuths whose neighbors are third generation Nazis, child molesters, or other bitter alcoholics. And everyone and everything is covered with snow . . .
Still, a class is a class! There will be other people eager to share their experiences with this list of books, films and TV shows we will be exploring together. And if I casually drop a name like John Dickson Carr or Harriet Rutland or Todd Downing and another student’s eyes light up . . . ?
Shut up and let me dream . . .
I thought it might be fun to let you in on my experiences so that you, my dear virtual friends, can suff– er, share along with me the various stories I come across. The first book on the syllabus is The Terrorists, (1975) by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They were personal and professional partners who are most famous for a series of ten novels featuring Martin Beck, a Stockholm homicide detective. The Terrorists is the final novel in the series and the last they wrote together; Wahloo died of cancer in 1975. Beck was a very popular character in Sweden. All of the novels were made into films between 1967 and 1994, and the character was the springboard for other, original, filmed stories. (Did the producers get him right? Or did they botch it all up like the second incarnation of Miss Marple? Inquiring minds want to know!)
Sjowall and Wahloo never married, but they were wedded to their strong political convictions (both were Marxists). There’s not much room for optimism in their vision of Sweden, as discussed in my book copy’s introduction (by none other than Dennis Lehane):
“One wonders how Sjowall and Wahloo managed to live there through the writing of the ten Martin Beck novels, so negative is their depiction of not just the failed welfare state but the physical landscape as well, a shameless myth of blond goddesses and mineral springs that in reality gives birth every morning to a ‘dismal, dirty, gray and depressing dawn.’”
Sounds like a barrel of laughs! Lehane’s introduction ends with:
“(The) system has soiled all who touch it. The innocents are destroyed. So are many of their exploiters. In the soul-carnage that erupts in the wake of the novel’s events, few people – good or bad – are left unscathed.”
At this point, I started placing bets over whether Beck would survive the finale of his own literary saga. Would he be gunned down in a confrontation with the terrorists? Would he solve the case and collapse from a stroke? Would he put the criminals in prison, go visit some drug-addled daughter in rehab, then go home and blast his brains out?
So imagine my surprise when I found that the novel is actually quite funny and Beck seems to have his act reasonably together throughout. I guess if Sjowall and Wahloo were going to present the disintegration of modern society, they figured some sardonic humor would help the medicine go down.
The Terrorists reminds me of the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, focusing on assorted crimes that fall on the plate of a group of good, bad and indifferent cops over a period of time. The emphasis is on both character (the authors can make even a minor character come into focus through well-placed details) and the procedural minutiae that law enforcement has to face daily. The main story concerns the efforts by the National Commissioner of Police to ensure that an upcoming visit by a despised American senator will not erupt in chaos and blood. It seems that a worldwide terrorist organization called ULAG is targeting the senator as its latest victim of assassination. To prevent this happening in Stockholm, the Commissioner appoints Martin Beck to head a team and organize all safety measures.
Beck is not thrilled with this assignment, but his regular plate in Homicide is not particularly full at the moment. He has just been assigned the murder of a wealthy director of pornographic films, which he wraps up quickly. Beck also rightly figures that he would do a much better job than his self-serving superior, Superintendent Stig Malm. One of the symptoms of societal ineptitude in this world is that the flawed, venal, jerks rise to the top. Luckily, Beck is none of those things, and rather than complain about it, he does his best to work effectively within the system. Beck is feeling the loss of his favorite associate, Lennart Kollberg, who quit the force in the last novel, and he’s trying to figure out how to deal with that loss. An assortment of good and bad cops work for him, and part of Beck’s job is to neutralize the bad wood and place the best men in each job – something hard to do in a system where the best men are not always rewarded or even encouraged.
Frankly, as a student it seems odd to me to be assigned the last book in a series. I looked up the character and found that, as in so many modern detective series, his private life has been a consistent thread in the novels, dealing with his troubled marriage and his bumpy relationship with his kids. Still, it was a nice surprise finding that Beck’s personal life here wasn’t a sloppy mess. He is not a drunk or a sick man. He has a really great girlfriend named Rhea, who is as passionate about teaching and politics as she is about having good sex with Beck. Their mutual concern for the little guy leads them to the other major plot strand of The Terrorists involving an 18-year-old naïf named Rebecka Lind. Her backstory has all the hallmarks of a Kafkaesque tragi-comedy: abandoned with a baby by her American draft dodging boyfriend, she goes to a bank for assistance, and ridiculously winds up on trial for bank robbery. I think that, in 1975, we were meant to empathize with Rebekka, with her refusal to accept or even understand the workings of the world around her. Today, I find her ignorance less endearing: if one really wants to live a simple, money-free life, it might be smart to move out of Stockholm. I also found her link to the other plotlines rather heavy-handed, but that just may be a matter of taste, since Rebekka’s story signifies the symbolic depths of the book’s title. You’ll either go with it, or you won’t.
The authors switch point of view back and forth throughout the novel, from the sardonic omniscient voice to Beck or one of his subordinates, to one of the terrorists from ULAG as he plans the assassination. One of my favorite characters is Gunvald Larsson, a highly flawed member of Beck’s team. Early in the novel, Larsson is sent to a Latin American country to observe their police methods for staving off an assassination. (Larsson is picked largely because his absence in Sweden would be a nice time out for all his co-workers.) Larsson fancies himself a sartorial beast, and he wears his best suit on the fateful day when all precautions fail, the politician’s car explodes, and the victim’s head bounces off Larsson, ruining the suit. And so the cop spends an extra ten days in the Latin American country at Sweden’s expense, getting a new suit made. Later, in Stockholm, Larsson is standing before a mirror, gazing at his new suit:
“Would it be a bad omen if he wore it on the great day? Would he be showered with the obnoxious senator’s intestines or something similar? Not impossible – and in defiance he decided there and then to wear the suit the following Thursday.”
I appreciated these moments of dry humor. I was less enamored of the tendency for the novel to get bogged down in the details. Things dragged for me in the middle, and I think that the cause, ironically, was Sjowall and Wahloo’s desire to illustrate how the combinded ineptitude and self-importance of “the guys upstairs” serves to render impotent the efficiency of those who live to serve and protect. But then, I felt this way in the middle of Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’ The Stranger, so maybe that was the point all along!
In the end, this is not a mystery I would necessarily have picked out to read. Perhaps this eight-week course will be a battle between my tastes and the tastes of Stieg Larssen, Peter Hoeg, Camilla Lackberg, and the like. Or perhaps taking the class will be a good thing, forcing me out of my comfort zone to expose myself to a radically different sub-genre of crime fiction. And who knows: perhaps one or more of the books on the course list will pickle, er, tickle my fancy. And maybe, at the end of one of the classes, the person on my left will sigh under his breath and whisper, “Well . . . Christie it ain’t!” and I will have made a new, flesh and blood, friend! Ah, Pinocchio, if only it could be true!
Next up: Henning Menkell’s Firewall.