The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Oh, he taught me a great deal. How to cut a sheep's throat with piano wire before it has a chance to bleat. How to handle a full grown wildcat you're locked up in a closet with. The way to bellow when you charge a cow and stick a bayonet in its belly."
The seventh installment in the Martin Beck series of socially-conscious Swedish police procedural novels, The Abominable Man (1971) is an outstanding representative of its genre. In a marked contrast with its weak predecessor,
Murder at the Savoy
, it is well written (or perhaps much better translated), has an interesting plot and, more importantly, its examination of social issues - the relationship between the police and citizens - is not as superficial as in the previous novel. The recent events in the United States - police killings of unarmed people and the resulting backlash - make the book particularly relevant here and now.
Stockholm, 1971. A very sick man is lying down in a hospital bed: the morphine has already stopped working and the man is trying to endure horrible pain. But when another man sneaks into the hospital room with a bayonet, the patient would probably prefer to keep suffering rather than getting viciously slaughtered. Chief Inspector Martin Beck, head of the Stockholm Homicide Squad, leads the investigation helped by other detectives known from previous novels, Gunvald Larsson, Lennart Kollberg, Einar Rönn, and Fredrik Melander.
Although the mystery plot is interesting and well developed, the main value of the novel lies in its examination of excessive brutality in the military and police force and how major character flaws of individual people in positions of authority corrupt the entire system. The authors show us self-proclaimed "hard men, unwilling to tolerate mistakes and weaknesses in others" who might have gone one step too far. What is the boundary between hardness and sadism? Obviously, one of the essential and indispensable goals of training military or police recruits is "making men out of mama's boys," but there must exist limits to the degree of hardness that the recruits will be able to tolerate. If - because of lapses in judgment - the trainers go too far with their demands, things are likely to break down with tragic consequences. Again, this is a timely issue in the United States, with the recent death of a Marine Seal recruit, subject to extreme rigors of training. What I admire about the authors is that they present both sides of the argument rather than attempting to provide an answer. Obviously there are no right answers to problems like that.
The other great feature of the novel, purely of literary nature, is that it hits the reader hard when it is least expected. Amid all the somber themes we are suddenly treated to a long and light-hearted fragment that features comedic characters who we are well acquainted with and who may be expected to provide comic relief. And then, BAM! The reader is suddenly and brutally shaken out of the comfort zone. The authors, admirably, recognize that a book which provides exactly what the reader expects cannot be very good, although it will probably sell better. In the same vein, one cannot avoid mentioning the last-page surprise: no, not a plot twist, but a totally unexpected and awe-inspiring behavior of a police officer. I wish there were officers like that in this country.
Highly recommended novel. Not as uniformly great as
The Laughing Policeman
but perhaps better than the memorable
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