The Terorrists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, translated by Joan Tate.
The last of the ten books in the classic Martin Beck series was first published in 1975. Today, in 2010, it is as fresh and intelligent as it must have been when first written. Even though the plot is about international terrorism, a topic prone to the latest gadgetry, the book does not seem dated because what is important about it is the plot, characters and ideas that the authors wish to convey.
The novel is, in effect, in three parts. First, Martin Beck is called to testify in court for the defence, in the case of a young woman who is accused of robbing a bank. This story is told with the typically droll, somewhat sarcastic style of the authors, who gleefully wheel in previous characters such as “Bulldozer” Olssen (the public prosecutor) and the idiot police pair of Kvastmo and Kristiansson. As the woman’s story unfolds, I was on tenterhooks as to how the case would be resolved.
Second is the affair of a man who travels to a suburb with a lead pipe under his coat. He hides in a garage adjoining a house overnight and in the morning, after the woman of the house has gone to work, breaks in and kills the man who lives there while he is in the shower. The murderer then walks away across the fields, throwing away the lead pipe in the process. The local police who are called to the crime, including the welcome return of a character we’ve met previously, soon contact Martin Beck, head of the national murder squad, for assistance. Nobody can work out a motive for the murder, and there seem to be no clues. Things go on inconclusively for a while until the lead pipe turns up, which is the impetus for the eventual conclusion of the case – one with a very bleak underlying motivation, and one which is just as likely to be the case today as it was 35 years ago, sadly.
A third (and main) part of the novel is about the visit of a prominent US Senator to Stockholm. In an era where terrorist assassinations of political leaders was, if not common, then not unknown, not to mention high unrest about the Vietnam War, the higher-ups are very concerned about security and call Martin Beck, as well as heads of other departments, to various meetings to decide what to do. Beck manipulates these men so that his colleague Gunvald Larsson goes to Spain as an observer to learn from the security arrangements in a state visit there. Again there is plenty to smile at in Larsson’s activities, but tragedy ensues, causing even more alarm back in Stockholm about how to ensure the Senator’s safety. Again, Beck manipulates events so that he and his fellow-police are responsible for the local security for which they are best suited, and the other departments such as Security (SAPO) for the long-range aspects. I won’t spoil anything by going into detail, but it is an exciting tale, told from the point of view of the putative terrorists as well as from the police who are trying to anticipate and outwit them without being derailed by politics and the inevitable confusion when so many agencies have to coordinate their activities and, in some cases, ensure they get the credit when things go well and no blame when they don’t. Rest assured, however, that the authors do intend to pull together the three elements of their novel to make their clear points about the way society is run and the many things in their opinion wrong with it. We make this journey with Martin Beck as he reflects on his relationships, friends, professional colleagues and his life, and at the end of it we leave him, if not satisfied, then settled.
Much has been made of the Marxist perspective of this set of novels, which taken together form a strong criticism of the way Sweden has been governed since the Second World War. Although it is true that the authors do see Marxism as an alternative, which seems quaintly naive and wrong-headed with the benefit of the hindsight which has shown us the total uselessness of it as a philosophy, I do see the authors’ political persuasion as a red herring in this context. Really, the authors are presenting an anatomy of Swedish society from the perspective of the police system. It does not really matter that they thought that Marxism was a viable alternative when obviously it was not. What matter s is what the authors had to say, and show, about the consequences to real people of political decisions. In this sense, the novels are as completely relevant and up-to-the-minute today as they were when they were first written, in that the rampant, vacuous materialism that the authors so much despised all those years ago has increased its grip on us all in manically ludicrous proportions, to the detriment of all of us and of society at large. The use of individual characters such as Martin Beck and his circle, as well as the victims and perpetrators of crimes appearing throughout the series from ROSEANNA to THE TERRORISTS, underpins the strong moral force of this enduring and intelligently conveyed message.