Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Fire Engine That Disappeared  (Martin Beck, #5)The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Now we've three dead men, one murdered, one both murdered and committed suicide and one who only committed suicide. How do you explain this suicidal psychosis?"

It must be a very difficult task for an author to follow a masterpiece in a series of novels. In the Martin Beck series of police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) follows the extraordinary The Laughing Policeman and - quite naturally - pales in comparison, even if it is quite a good book in its own right.

The epigraph succinctly describes the problem that the detectives face. In addition to an apparently obvious suicide, they have to deal with an explosion in the house that has been under police observation because of a suspected car thief living there. Several people die in the explosion, but has it been really planned as a murder? Well, it turns out to be a suicide but then it also turns out to be a murder. In addition to the murder/suicide conundrum, we have the disappearing fire engine. But wait! It is not just one fire engine that disappears! From the mystery point of view the plot is quite engrossing.

While I like the increased focus on Gunvald Larsson the tension between him and Lennart Kollberg has become somewhat of a cliché. Martin Beck's squad has a new member, Benny Skacke; alas his characterization is full of clichés as well. In general, the writing in this installment could be described as lazy - the authors rely too much on things that the readers are supposed to know from previous books: the repetitiveness of characterizations is - in my view - one of the worst aspects of series of novels. On the other hand, the further deterioration of Martin Beck's marriage is shown well and cleverly contrasted with a rather unconventional marital life of Detective Månsson. The interrogation of Nadja Eriksson makes hilarious reading, and I have had fun imagining why there are breaks in the taped recording.

This is the first novel in the series where the concerns about social issues become really prominent. The authors worry about Sweden's "failed social policies" and - while from many of the U.S. residents' point of view Sweden is too much of a socialist country - the authors hold a totally opposite view: they suggest that the Swedish socialism is fake and just a cover for a truly uncaring and predatory capitalist society. At any rate, even the readers who are not too much into social issues will have fun with the plot and some vivid characters.

Three and a half stars.

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