Saturday, May 14, 2016

Roseanna (Martin Beck, #1)Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] a quick, indifferent look at the photographer, her face calm and relaxed, out of the picture to the right. A quick turn. Roseanna [...] from the back, with her elbows on the railing, the weight of her body resting on her right foot, on her toes, scratching her left ankle with the right hand."

The current craze about Scandinavian mystery and crime novels ("Scandi thrillers", "Nordic noir", etc.) is not altogether a new phenomenon. Over half a century ago Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a couple of Swedish authors (and partners in private life), began publishing the so-called Martin Beck series of novels about detectives from the Stockholm homicide division, arguably the best series of police procedurals ever written. Roseanne (1965) is the first novel in the series and with it I embark on yet another of my "re-read great mystery and crime novels" projects. I read all 10 books between 30 and 45 years ago and I considered at least two of them masterpieces of the genre. We will see what I think about them now that I am all grown up.

Workers find the naked body of a young woman while dredging the canal leading to Lake Boren, near the city of Motala in southern Sweden. The local police detectives - despite their dedication and hard work - are unable to determine the identity of the woman and Martin Beck and his team from the Swedish national police are called to help. Through tenacity, patience, meticulous work, and co-operation of a detective in another country - but also owing to Beck's inspiration - they discover who the woman was and what brought her to the lake region. Eventually the identity of the murderer is established as well and when the only thing that remains is getting the proof Martin Beck finds an unusual way of obtaining it.

Roseanna is indeed an extraordinarily successful police procedural, showing the arduous, painstakingly slow process of assembling clues from little available evidence. Even more interestingly, the reader learns about the detectives' work on building a compelling psychological portrait of the victim. The characters of the detectives - Martin Beck, Lennart Kollberg, and Fredrik Melander (Einar Rönn and Gunvald Larssen will appear in later books in the series as will detective Stenström, alas in a different role) - are convincing: we deal with real people not just paper-thin clichés. Observations of the deterioration of Beck's marital life serves as a prime example of the authors' skill.

The vivid portrait of the victim is developed through various means but the crucial ingredient is the interview with the woman's ex-boyfriend. While interviews and interrogations are the high points in Roseanna - the reader will likely not forget the interviews with the suspect and his ex-girlfriend - the most powerful scene is the account of the detectives watching an amateur movie showing the victim in the days and hours before her murder. The tension is palpable, and the reader joins the detectives and police officials in focusing on the last images of Roseanna.

Missing in the novel are social observations and commentary, so prominent in the later installments of the Martin Beck series. Still, Roseanna is an outstanding crime novel and a great beginning of the series.

Four stars.

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