The Locked Room, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

 

Translated by Paul Brittan Austin. Introduction by Michael Connelly.

THE LOCKED ROOM, the eighth book in the Martin Beck series, is darker and longer than its predecessors, and has a more complex plot. Part of this plot involves a long back-story of a criminal gang which makes the first half of the book slightly slow and frustrating. But in the second half, the pace and the plot pick up, culminating in a clever dovetailing of several narratives and undercurrents – with quite a sting in the tale.

The previous book, THE ABOMINABLE MAN, ended with Martin Beck seriously injured – I don't think it is giving anything away to say that he survived that experience and at the start of THE LOCKED ROOM has been recuperating for some time – plagued by hallucinatory dreams, unable to sleep properly, and finding little to interest him in life apart from maritime history. Neither his daughter nor his affectionate female colleague make an appearance in this book, which adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Because of his convalescence, Martin is outside the main dramatic story – the bank robbery that opens the book; the gruesomely compelling police boss, "Bulldozer" Olssen and his preconceived certainty that a particular gang is responsible; and Olssen's insistence that series regulars Kollberg, Larsson and Ronn investigate the group of petty criminals he is convinced are using the robbery to fund a much more ambitious illegal scheme.

Martin, on the other hand, is presented with a strange mystery on his return to work, that of the titular locked room. A decomposing body had been found in a flat – a man shot in the heart, but in a room in which the doors and windows are securely locked. Initially labelled a suicide, Martin's re-opening of the previously incompetently handled case rapidly points to inconsistencies. What follows is a typical (for Martin) investigation of dogged determination of every apparently inconsequential detail, gradually building up a picture of what must have happened – facilitated by his long experience at handling witnesses, organisations and crime lab staff and extracting from them the information he needs. There is both an elegiac aspect, as Martin wanders round the old quays, observing ways of life that have almost vanished, as well as encountering the "suicide van", trawling the city to remove the daily victims of this sad disease; and a positive spin, as he meets a woman who might well turn out to be his soulmate – or as the authors put it, "at the same time as he was breaking into Svard's locked room, he was also breaking out of his own."

Much of the book, however, concerns the small band of criminals on the make: a couple of (possible?) bank robbers, Malmstrom and Mohren, together with their contact Mauritzon, a dapper, would-be fixer. The authors spend some time on the background and back-story of these gentlemen and their associates, which to my mind slightly detracts from the novel's pace, but suddenly everything comes into sharp focus with the brilliance of a chapter or two telling the story of Monita – victim of the welfare state and of the casual carelessness of a man. This section of the book is masterful; after that, everything gathers pace and depth, as well as intensified authorial sarcasm about the organisation and politics of the police – said to be worse than the Keystone Cops in mishandling a demonstration, causing total mayhem to the bank-robbery case. The last chapters bring the disparate themes together, as Martin's pursuit of the true way brings him dividends in the shape of a solution to the locked-room case, whereas "Bulldozer's" insistence that he knows the solution to the bank robbery case before the investigation even started causes the police to miss completely the facts, which are presented in some dazzling twists. The reader is left with an uncompromising verdict on the corruptness of Swedish society – which seems a little naïve to me. Even without the hindsight of the 30 years since the books were written, the constant negative comparison in this and previous books of Sweden with other (un-named) places seems unconvincing. And the authors' eventual identification of Yugoslavia as a haven makes their political stance clear, while being unintentionally ironic – and rather poignant for the modern reader who knows what the next 20 years will bring for that country. Nevertheless, THE LOCKED ROOM provides delightfully clever plotting in the outcome of the two main investigations, and the moral question of "if the crime does not fit the punishment, does the punishment fit the crime?" leaves the reader with plenty to ponder.

First published at Euro Crime, February 2010.

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

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