Saturday, August 20, 2016

Cop Killer (Martin Beck, #9)Cop Killer by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Sergeant Gustav Borglund, thirty-seven, died this morning of injuries received in connection with an exchange of fire between policemen and two armed men in Ljunghusen. Two other policemen were seriously wounded in the same gun battle."

Cop Killer (1974) is the ninth novel in the legendary series of Swedish police procedurals with strong social issues component - the so-called Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I have been re-reading the series in chronological order and this is not one of the better entries. While the plot is mostly captivating and the deeply ironic twist - which, by the way, is connected to the title of the book - is superb, the reliance on the reader's knowledge of characters and motifs from the previous novels in the series is a failed device. Several lame and naively didactic passages are annoying, and, what's worse, the humor often does not work. I think the authors' exhaustion with the series shows.

A woman is waiting for the bus in a small town near Sweden's southernmost point. A car stops and a man offers her a ride. He drives into a forest, strangles the woman, and hides the body in a mudhole. Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg from the Swedish National Homicide Squad are called to find the killer, but the upper echelons of police bureaucracy do not really want to waste time on an investigation. They want Beck to immediately arrest the "obvious" suspect, the man who had spent several years in prison for a sexually-motivated murder and who happens to live next to the victim. Still, Beck and Kollberg try to make sure that the evidence links the obvious suspect to the crime.

In the other main thread, police patrol stops two suspected thieves. Because of gross incompetence of the officers a gunfight erupts - the account of the total chaos resulting from both sides' stupidity is one of the best passages in the book - and one of the criminals and a police officer die. Sweden's top police authorities call for a nationwide manhunt for the "cop killer" thus causing additional difficulties for the investigating detectives.

I read Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's novels more for their examination of social issues than for the police procedural content and it is clear that this aspect has been expressed much better in the previous novels in the series. Cop Killer offers superficial, naive, and oversimplified insights on socioeconomic issues. Of course it is normal in societies that extremely stupid people rise to top positions in bureaucracies but the characters of Beck's supervisor, Malm, and the national police commissioner, are paper-thin caricatures of morons, cartoon bad guys, rather than real people. The stupidity of managers in real life is usually not outright visible and thus more dangerous. All this cheapens the well-intentioned critique of the Swedish welfare state and lessens the impact of the authors' environmental concerns. The portrayal of the Swedish police force, with total idiots at the very top and at the very bottom of the hierarchy, is quite depressing.

I have not been amused by references to several previous novels in the series (I have spotted five out of eight, but not being a careful reader I have likely missed the remaining three). Artificial and forced they do not bring anything worthwhile to the plot or to the message of the novel. Maybe the authors intend the references as a sort of closing of the series? It might have been better if the authors stopped at the great The Abominable Man But then people prefer the number ten over eight and also we would not have the fabulous, scathing plot twist, one of the best twists I have ever seen.

Two and a half stars.

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