David Davidar, when he was the editor of Penguin India, used to write a weekly column in the Sunday magazine of ‘The Hindu’, recommending a book or an author. It was here that I first heard of Per Wahloo & Maj Sjowall and their book titled ‘Laughing Policeman’. Fortunately I was able to get this book here. I read it and began searching for their other books and did not rest till I go all the ten they wrote.
‘Roseanna’ was the first book that this husband wife pair wrote. A body of a young girl is discovered when one of the lakes in Sweden in dredged. The girl is naked and has apparently been murdered. The local police have no clue either about the identity of the girl nor about the time of the murder. Inspector Beck, who appears in all the books, from headquarters is summoned to take up this mysterious case. How Inspector Beck and his colleagues go about solving the case forms the main story of this novel.
Crime in real world is a complex web involving the victim, the perpetrator, law enforcing agencies and the society at large. It is this intricate interaction which Sjowall and Wahloo set out to capture. The focus is not on putting forth a puzzle which needs to be solved by scientific thinking. Neither is the focus on the protagonist, his / her idiosyncrasies, the brilliance of their deduction. Instead in most of their novels it is the victim, who, though no longer alive, drives the investigation. In “Rosenna’ the dead girl is constantly on the conscience of Inspector Beck and his colleague. An unstated feeling of guilt engulfs them of not being able to protect a helpless young girl. The only path to redemption is to find and punish the person responsible for the crime.
The process of unraveling a crime is a boring one, in most cases. The police rarely have the ‘eureka’ moments. They follow up every clue, question hundreds of people, encounter dead ends regularly and have to deal with both mounting criticism and mounting work. The crime is solved by piecing together small clues and by relentless followup. Here is where the policeman’s sense of justice and his / her conscience comes to fore, for without that the drudgery would be unbearable and many cases would remain unsolved. Sjowall and Wahloo bring the whole police investigation to life by building a very credible cast of characters, each of whom has their own ideas, ideologies and idiosyncrasies.
The more important dilemma that the police face in the novel is about the all-pervading presence of doubt. While it is a tough task to bind the clues together and zoom in on the criminal, the tougher part is to be sure that the person actually committed the crime. This dilemma is brought to the fore in a very effective fashion in ‘Rosenna’. The police try to solve this problem in an unorthodox way which is questionable and which almost leads to a tragedy.
Sjowall and Wahloo, who are considered to the god parents of Scandinavian crime writing, go beyond the genre of crime writing to give us an amazing portrait of the Swedish society. Their novels are as much about social criticism as they are about crime. ‘Rosenna’ explores the inner demons of the perpetrator and how these demons consume him when he interacts with the modern society. The inability to let go of primitive prejudices and the need to correct what is seen as wrong from the perpetrator’s view, fuel the debate within us on the nature of human beings. Sjowall and Wahloo were communists and it is this prism that gives their books a very balanced feel. While their politics makes them didactic in some of their book, in their best books like ‘Rosenna’ it is their politics which gives the book a human touch. It is this politics which ensures that we do not feel elated that the crime has been solved but rather question our own nature. Instead of the applause that is generally heard when the curtain falls, in ‘Rosenna’ we hear a deep silence.
Sjowall and Wahloo’s prose is fairly straightforward with a very wry sense of humor. They invoke the gloomy Scandinavian atmosphere with just a few brush strokes and also transport us into the heart of Sweden effortlessly. The melancholic Inspector Beck, with his own personal problems, has become the role model for almost all the Scandinavian detectives to follow, be it the heroes of Indridasson or Hakkan Naseer or Henin Mankell. In this archetype developed by Sjowall and Wahloo, the policeman solves a case, not just because it is his duty, but because in a profession which constantly calls upon him to watch the results of inhuman activity, solving the crime is the only way he can keep himself human. This archetype has served Scandinavian crime fiction well and many of the current successful authors owe a debt of gratitude to Sjowall and Wahloo.
There are ten books in the Inspector Beck series, not all of which are equal. The most important ones according to me are: ‘Rosenna’, ‘Laughing Policeman’, ‘Man on the Balcony’. The ‘lighter’ books in this series are ‘Terrorists’ and ‘Man who went up in Smoke’ while the ‘Locked Room’ is one which has a slightly different tone and style from the other novels.