Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Locked Room (Martin Beck, #8)The Locked Room by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She wanted her child to grow up in a warm, secure, humane environment - one where the rat race after power, money, and social status did not make everyone into an enemy, and where the word 'buy' and 'own' weren't regarded as synonyms with happiness."

While The Locked Room (1973), the eighth installment of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's extraordinary Martin Beck series of police procedurals based in Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s, is again heavy on social issues, this particular novel distinguishes itself even stronger in another way. Despite the grim beginning passages it is a hilarious comedy of errors, where everybody - the criminals, the police, and the courts - make mistakes that range from idiotic to grave, but the justice sort of triumphs in the end. A laugh-out-loud funny yet socially aware police procedural turns out to be quite a cool sub-genre.

The novel interleaves two threads: the first story begins with a bank robbery that results in a customer getting accidentally killed. In the other thread, an elderly man is found dead in his apartment when the odor of putrefaction alerts the neighbors. The apartment has been tightly locked from inside, the man has apparently shot himself to death, but the suicide weapon is not in there. Lennart Kollberg, Gunvald Larsson, and other members of the homicide squad are handling the bank robbery while Martin Beck - who has just made complete recovery after getting shot - is trying to untangle the mystery of the locked room. Obviously, the authors seamlessly connect the two threads in the denouement.

Social and political themes abound in the story. The plot takes place in Stockholm during the summer of 1972 - the time of massive anti-American demonstrations in the capital of Sweden. The authors make fun of the highest levels government officials for whom
"the only crime that could be considered more serious [than a bank robbery] was throwing eggs at the United States ambassador."
On a more serious note the novel raises the issue of the increase in brutality of conflicts between the police and the criminals that followed issuing weapons to police officers; most of the police force had been unarmed before that. The growing underclass in Sweden is another motif in the novel - the lack of jobs and perspectives for hundreds of thousands of people is a highly criminogenic situation.

Despite the serious themes humor dominates the novel. The humor ranges from over-the-top farce involving career criminals Malmström, Mohrén, and Mauritzon to subtle and hilarious: for example, Martin Beck is afraid that due to his incompetence and because "he had acted as an idiot", he might get promoted to the rank of Police Commissioner. Indeed, in bureaucracies it rarely matters who is at the top as long as the subordinates are only moderately incompetent.

If one enjoys reading about the details of the detectives' lives, The Locked Room offers a treat. Lonely and sad after his divorce, Martin Beck seems to have recovered: he is so happy now that he whistles as he walks, something that would be inconceivable in the previous novels. The long scene where Beck meets Rhea, the woman of his destiny, is wonderfully off-beat and infuriating at the same time: the subtle psychological observations and the clever, cliché-free banter intermingle with atrocious, naively didactic dialogue.

Interesting plot strongly grounded in socioeconomic realities, clever locked-room mystery, and plenty of humor! If not for some weaknesses of the prose, this would be a four-star book.

Three and a half stars.

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