The Abominable Man, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo


THE ABOMINABLE MAN is the seventh in the Martin Beck series, and continues the bleak, downbeat trend of these superb novels. A man is gravely ill in hospital, but before the results of his tests are ready, he is brutally murdered – by the abominable man of the title? At first, we might think so, but as the book continues, we come to realise that the adjective does not apply to the killer.

Most of the events take place over a long night. The first policeman from the murder squad on the scene is Ronn, who soon calls in his boss, Martin Beck (always given both his names). Martin is not too happy to have to work with Ronn rather than his usual partner and friend, Lennert Kollberg, but nonetheless he sets out on his usual methodical investigation of the life of the murdered man, in order to see who might have perpetrated the violent act that ended his life.

The investigation proceeds against a background of an overwhelmingly miserable society and unhappy cast of characters. Earlier books in the series have been lightened by some optimistic participants, but THE ABOMINABLE MAN is characterised by policemen who have no life outside their jobs. That isn't to say that there is no black humour in the novel, for example Larsson's suggestion of the police orchestra playing "happy birthday to you" to a suspect, and sending him a poisoned birthday cake – his sarcastic take on the efforts of the incompetent Superintendent Malm to contain a ghastly situation at the climax of the book.

As is often the case with Martin Beck investigations, the interest is not "who" did the crime but what the crime reveals about the society in which it took place and which, in this case, has slowly driven a man to take a drastic and fruitless act. The books are becoming more claustrophobic as the series progresses, as the negative effects of the nationalisation of the Swedish police service, and the influence of the military as well as the political establishment, are felt by traditional cops like Beck and Kollberg.

"In his own mind, Martin Beck had to admit that the whole thing seemed pointless. In the course of his active career, Nyman had of course maltreated hundreds of people. Only a few of them had lodged written complaints and Ronn's brief investigation had uncovered only a few of these. But many years of experience had taught him [Beck] that most of his work was in fact pointless, and that even the things that provided results in the long run almost always looked pointless to begin with."

First posted at Euro Crime, January 2009.

This entry was posted in Books, Classic, Crime fiction, Police procedural, Series, Social comment, Sweden, Translated and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Abominable Man, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

  1. Dorte H. says:

    Have you seen the modern TV-series which is built on these characters? It is quite good, but not nearly as pessimistic as the original Beck & his bleak, Swedish society. One clear proof is that friends and neighbours just call him Martin 🙂 So I put my knowledge about the old series away and think of this Martin Beck as someone else. Otherwise I would grumble about all the errors all the time.

  2. Maxine says:

    No, I haven’t seen the TV series, Dorte. I am not aware that it has been on TV here – I think that we hardly ever get the mainland European crime TV series over here. I am not sure, though – I hardly ever watch TV. Karen Meek is probably much more up to date than me on what is showing (or has shown) and what hasn’t.
    We had two Camiellri TV programmes over Christmas on a minority channel (with subtitles) - I quite liked them, but they were certainly not the books!

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