With their Martin Beck novels—a ten book police procedural series published between 1965 and 1975— husband and wife writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö have been credited as the originators of contemporary Swedish crime fiction. Of course Sjöwall and Wahlöö weren't first to this genre in Sweden. But apparently their books marked a decisive shift from the British-style puzzle mysteries then predominant to a new kind of detective story in which the characters were more complexly human, the police work more realistic, and the plots focused on, and illuminating of, current social problems.
Having just read Roseanna, the first in the series, I can already understand why Sjöwall and Wahlöö hold this exalted status. Although, as noted above, it was originally published in 1965, it feels like an altogether modern read. It's clear from the details that it's set in another time—the men wear hats, everybody smokes everywhere, transatlantic communication is slow, and a good bit of the final resolution of the case involves waiting next to a telephone. But Martin Beck, the melancholic police inspector at the centre of the action, could easily have walked out of a 21st century crime novel. Of course, that familiarity is a testament to his influence and he's no less intriguing a character for it.
Interestingly, in an introduction to the edition that I read, Henning Mankell praises Beck and the books in which he features for the same qualities that I praised Mankell's Kurt Wallander series when I first encountered it. Mankell emphasizes Martin Beck's humanness and fallibility:
I haven't counted how many times Martin Beck feels sick in Roseanna, but it happens a lot. He can't eat breakfast because he doesn't feel good. Cigarettes and train rides make him sick. His personal life also makes him ill. In Roseanna the homicide investigators emerge as ordinary human beings. There is nothing at all heroic about them. They do their job, and they get sick.
He also remarks on the innovative use of time in Roseanna:
...let me say that it's probably one of the first crime novels in which time clearly plays a major role. There are long periods during which nothing happens, when the investigation into who murdered Roseanna and threw her into the Göta Canal seems to be standing still; then it may move a few centimetres before coming to a halt again. It's quite clear that for Martin Beck and his colleagues, the passage of time is both frustrating and a necessary evil.
This facet of the book really struck me as well. It seems to me a very difficult thing to convey the intermittent, slow, sometimes plodding quality of investigative work in realistic fashion without generating a slow and plodding reading experience. Yet Sjöwall and Wahlöö have accomplished the former here in a taut, gripping novel of little more than 200 pages.
Roseanna proved an excellent read, and I can't wait to begin on the other nine books in the series. I borrowed Roseanna from the library, but I've resolved to buy myself a copy of it and of the rest of the series as well, as I'm already quite sure that these are books that I'm going to want to own. Happily they all are, or soon will be, readily available in lovely paperback reprint Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions, complete with introductions by such luminaries as Mankell (quoted above), Val McDermid, and Jo Nesbø.