Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Murder at the Savoy (Martin Beck, #6)Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The bullet struck the speaker just behind the left ear, and he fell forward onto the table, his left cheek in the crenelated mash potatoes around an exquisite fish casserole à la Frans Suell".

A good illustration of the usual fate of book series: after magnificent The Laughing Policeman and quite good The Fire Engine that Disappeared comes Murder at the Savoy (1970), the sixth installment in the series, a marginal quality procedural and a barely readable mystery, very, very far from Maj Sjöwall's and Per Wahlöö's peak achievement. Murder is clearly the weakest book in the series so far.

Even the title is pedestrian, more so in the English translation than in the original. The Swedish title Polis, polis, potatismos! - which means "Police, police, mashed potatoes!" (thanks, Google!) - might not be particularly sales-friendly but at least it is way more attractive than the generic Murder. The story begins in a luxury hotel restaurant in Malmö where a dinner party of seven includes Victor Palmgren, a corporation president and a business magnate. While he is making a speech, a man comes in, calmly shoots him, and equally calmly exits through a low window. Due to utter stupidity of a police patrol (Kristiansson and Kvant at your service) the suspect manages to escape. The highest echelons in the Swedish government are concerned because the victim has been involved with "sensitive matters" and because "there were strong vested interests in certain areas of his operations" (which, in translation, means that Palmgren might have been involved in arms sales to African countries). Obviously, Martin Beck, the Chief Inspector in the National Homicide squad, is leading the investigation; in addition to scarcity of clues he has to suffer interference from meddling agents of the political secret police.

While social issues become the dominating theme in this installment of the series, the authors' critique does not seem particularly well targeted. Even though I despise the predatory brand of capitalism and am suspicious of many of the so-called business practices, I am unable to support claims that businesses should have the well-being of their employees as the main criterion in their operation. Neither, on the other hand, is it true that only the bad apples among the business owners - the utterly greedy ones who lack moral scruples - are responsible for their employees' degradation and poverty. The faults are obviously systemic rather than personal and likely result from the lack of suitable regulation. But enough of amateurish political economy discourse, let's get back to literature or rather to what is wrong with the prose.

One of the main problems with this novel is the writing: the conversations between Gunvald Larsson and his sister or between Ǻsa Torell and Lennart Kollberg are conveyed in stilted, unnaturally sounding dialogues, where the paper-thin characters deliver their unconvincing "lines". Maybe it is a fault of the translation as different people are credited with it than in the case of magnificent prose of The Laughing Policeman. The criminal plot is close to average quality, yet - to reiterate - very far from the level that the previous books in the series have taught us to expect. The reader may also question the use of coincidence to introduce the episode with Larsson's sister. Big disappointment overall.

Two and a quarter stars.

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