Welcome to another edition of In the Spotlight. Swedish crime fiction has been getting an awful lot of media attention in the past year or two, chiefly because of the commercial and critical success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. But the truth is, Swedish crime fiction has been an important part of the crime fiction landscape for a long time. It certainly didn’t start with Larsson. So today, let’s take a closer look at a book and some writers who laid the groundwork for modern Swedish crime fiction: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. Thanks to Patti at Pattinase for this terrific suggestion. And please check out this terrific review of Roseanna by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.
Roseanna begins with the discovery one summer day of the strangled body of a young woman during a dredging operation in Lake Vättern. When the body appears in the dredging bucket, no-one seems to be able to identify her. The woman’s description doesn’t match that of any missing person, and there’s no identification on the body. Stockholm homicide investigator Martin Beck and his team-mates Kollberg and Melander go to Motala, where the investigation is centered, and begin working to identify the woman and find out who killed her and why.
With patient, thorough police work, the team finds out that the victim’s name was Roseanna McGraw, and that she was a visitor to Sweden from the United States. Slowly, over the next several months, the team finds out the kind of person she was, why she was visiting Sweden, and how she came to meet her killer. In the end, Beck and his team discover the killer and learn the reason for the murder.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the realistic depiction of the patient, sometimes difficult work that’s involved in solving a murder, especially the murder of an unidentified person. The novel takes place before the days of DNA testing, electronic communication and other modern technology, so there’s a real emphasis on interviews, photographs and coroner and police reports. We follow Beck and the team as they narrow down the myriad possibilities to one cruise ship – the ship on which Roseanna was traveling. Then, we “listen in” as passengers and crew members are interviewed. At the same time, we follow a parallel investigation in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the missing Roseanna McGraw lived. Throughout the investigation, we’re privy to the long hours, frustrations and painstaking work that go into solving this kind of crime. In this sense, Roseanna is a clear example of the police procedural, with a real focus on what police do to solve cases. The novel isn’t a thriller – most police work isn’t like that. Instead, it’s a “behind-the-scenes” portrayal of a police unit at work.
Another element that runs through the novel is the slowly unfolding character of Roseanna McGraw. At the beginning of the novel, she doesn’t exist yet as a personality. But bit by bit, as Martin Beck and his team gather the threads of their case, we learn more and more about her. For example, once the team has linked up their unidentified body with the missing Roseanna McGraw, we begin to learn about her from Nebraska police, who interview Roseanna’s former room-mate and one of her former lovers. Then, the investigation returns to Sweden, where Beck and his team interview several passengers and crew members and learn about Roseanna’s last days in Sweden. From those interviews and the team’s deductions, we find out what others thought of Roseanna and how she behaved. This, too, adds to our picture of her. By the end of the novel, her character is much clearer and better-developed, and her murder fits into the plot. You could say that as the investigation team learns more about Roseana McGraw, so does the reader.
Teamwork also plays an important role in this novel. The case is not solved by Martin Beck’s brilliant ideas alone (although he is a highly talented and intuitive investigator). Instead, he, Kollberg, Melander, Detective Sonja Hansson and Inspector Ahlberg from Motala work together with Detective Kafka from Lincoln, Nebraska. They pool their resources and talents and it’s really their combined efforts that catch the killer. In this use of teamwork, the novel is quite realistic. In real life, it’s rarely only one police detective who has all of the good ideas and does all of the work. Almost always, police work together, especially on a difficult, complicated murder case like this one.
The character of Martin Beck himself is another important thread in this novel. Many people have argued that he’s the forerunner of several modern Swedish detectives: hard-working, somewhat pessimistic, dedicated to his job and with a less-than-perfect home life. In those senses, Beck is similar to Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and other Swedish detectives (although of course, there are differences among them). Beck’s haunted by Roseanna McGraw’s murder, and is obsessed with finding her killer. When he and his team do so, he doesn’t celebrate, or make a public spectacle of the solution to the murder. But he does have a sense of satisfaction, and when it’s all over, he feels free to return, both figuratively and literally, to his home in Stockholm. Beck’s somewhat of a gloomy character, but his pessimism doesn’t get in the way of his determination to find out Roseanna’s killer. He’s a complex character, and in some ways unappealing, but his perseverance and his sense of justice permeate the novel.
Roseanna isn’t an uplifting, optimistic novel, although the murder is solved and the culprit is caught. And yet, it’s not overly dark or morbid, either. There’s a wry, almost sardonic sense of humor that comes through in various places in the story. For instance, one morning, Beck arrives at his office to find that Melander has been waiting for him. Here’s their conversation:
“Hi, there,” Martin Beck said.
“Good morning,” said Melander.
“That pipe smells dreadful. But by all means sit here and poison the air. You are most welcome. Or was there something special you wanted?”
“You don’t get cancer as quickly if you smoke a pipe. Your brand of cigarettes are said to be the most dangerous, by the way. At least that’s what I’ve heard. Otherwise, I’m on duty.”
The sense of place is also an important element in this novel. As the detectives pursue the leads, interview witnesses and slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, we get a sense of what Stockholm, Motala, Gothenburg and other places in Sweden are like. Sjöwall and Wahlöö place the reader unmistakably, and although it may sound trite, one really can say that the place and its climate almost become characters in the novel.
Roseanna is first and foremost a police procedural that focuses on what the police do to solve their cases, and how they go about it. It’s also, in many ways, the forerunner of more modern Swedish crime fiction, tied together with a flawed, complex, but highly talented lead detective, teamwork, a sense of place and the gradually evolving character of the victim. But what’s your view? Have you read Roseanna? If you have, what elements of the novel struck you?
Coming Up On In the Spotlight
Monday 23 August/Tuesday 24 August - A Morning For Flamingos - James Lee Burke
Monday 30 August/Tuesday 31 August - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
Monday 6 September/Tuesday 7 September - The Breaker - Minette Walters