Monday, August 16, 2010

In the Spotlight: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna

Hello, All,

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


  1. Sigh. Another one to add to my must read stack. The Nordic writers seem to have a gift for characterization. Mankell is a good example.

  2. John - I know what you mean. Mankell and Sjöwall and Wahlöö are just a couple of the Nordic writers who really explore character, especially the characters of their sleuths. One can really see, too, the similarities between this book and some later Scandinavian fiction...

  3. Oh, Margot, I love this series so much. I learn so much about the book it just propels me to get it. You should do all my book review... I'm serious!

    I love stories that slowly review both the victim and the detectives. No one is perfect, the victim is no more perfect than the detectives that solve the murder. I love the good old police procedural.

    THanks for the review. Is the story in English? I guess it must be but is it translated?


  4. Clarissa - How kind of you : ). I am so glad you are enjoying this series.

    And I agree; especially in the police procedural, it's especially engaging when we see the victim and detectives bit by bit, a little at a time. That keeps the reader's attention and it's engaging. And as you say, nobody is perfect, so it's good, too, when those characters, as they're revealed, are less-than-perfect.

    This novel was originally written in Swedish, but it's been translated into English; I read Lois Roth's translation.

  5. Thanks for the shout out Margot and also for encouraging me to read this one which I should have done ages ago.

    Having read the book so late in my crime fiction journey I was struck several times by how familiar the procedural elements of the story felt but then realised that this was probably the first time (or one of the first times) such elements had been so clearly depicted in any crime fiction. When the police ordered the tracking down of all the photographs taken by boat passengers I thought of the part in the first Stieg Larsson books where Mikael makes a connection to the case he is investigating by tracking down old photographs and I wondered if it was a nod from him to Sjowall and Wahloo.

    I also felt comparisons to R D Wingfield's Inspector Frost books which have that same detailed and realistic procedural element, along with a fairly dour and not particularly lovable main character who has a team of good people working with and around him.

    I am enjoying this feature on your blog and thanks for posting 'advance warning' of the books you will read. I won't always be able to read along but I am going to try to do it at least once a month.

  6. Bernadette - Oh, it's my pleasure to recognise your excellent blog! Folks, do visit Reactions to Reading ; it is superb.

    It's funny you would mention that about the similarities between Roseanna and later series. I agree that it's quite possible that later authors have used this series as inspiration. And I wouldn't be in the least bit at all surprised if Mikael Blomkvist's idea about the photographs in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, indeed, a nod to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. I'm sure there are several police procedural novelists in other countries, too (and thanks for mentioning the Frost novels) who also owe their inspiration to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, too.

    And I am flattered and chuffed when you do find the time to read along at all, whenever you can.

  7. This book is definitely going on my wish list. Your spotlight on it has peaked my interest. I love the fact that it is written before all the modern technology that is in thrillers today. It's always fun to 'go back' to hard police work and remember how it was once done.

    Looking forward to your upcoming features, as well as your daily posts. I'm glad you're doing this spotlight. It's been fun and educational.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - How kind of you : ). I'm very glad you're enjoying In the Spotlight; I am, too.

    I agree with you that an old-school police procedural, where the cops get the information from interviews and other low-tech methods is fun and interesting. I like reading about how it used to be done, too, although of course, that part of Roseanna isn't realistic any more. Still, I think the long hours and hard work are, especially if the person starts out as being unidentified. I really do think you'll like Roseanna; it's a classic.

  9. What a great idea, Margot. I loved reading Bernadette's review and your post here, about Roseanna. One frequently hears that the "parents" of the modern crime/police procedural are Sjowall/Wahloo with their 10-book Martin Beck series and Ed McBain with the 87th precinct. They began writing independently in the same era. Sjowall tells a story of how someone sent her a copy of a McBain after the first couple of Beck books, and she liked it so much that she translated it for Swedish publication.

    I read the first Ed McBain and the first Sjowall/Wahloo (Roseanna) at about the same time. I was immediately hooked on the Swedish series and have now read them all, but was never keen to read more of McBain (though I yet might). Why? Roseanna immediately pulled me in to the police investigation and their lives, in a way that I found hard with McBain's characters. I also loved the social political comment in Sjowall/Wahloo, as well as the very strong authorial voice and opinion, which I think is relatively rare in crime fiction. Reading The Terrorists recently on holiday (the last in the series) immediately after reading several varied but contemporary novels, I was very struck by the intelligent and (again!) opinionated writing. I like that a lot, as well as all the other aspects noted by you and Bernadette - the fact that the 10 books are both good stories but also more than that, they are telling another, more amorphous story about political and social trends over the years of the books' setting.

  10. Margot I must re-read Roseanna some time as I read it a long time ago now [ugh 30 years], but remember I was hooked on police procedurals from then on.

  11. Maxine - Thanks : )! And wasn't Bernadette's review terrific? And thanks for sharing that story about Sjöwall's feelings about the McBain book she read. The Martin Beck books really do draw one not only into the actual police investigations (although they certainly do that), but also into the sleuths' lives in a way that doesn't get in the way of the plot but in fact, adds to it. Really excellent police procedurals allow the reader to see what it's like to be a cop, both at home and "on duty" and you're right that Sjöwall and Wahlöö do exactly that with Martin Beck. I'm glad, too, that you mentioned the social commentary throughout the novel. One really can see the authors' voices coming through in several places in the story, and we can see how they hold the mirror up, so to speak, to the society of the time. When that's done well, it really does add quite a lot to the story.

    You could certainly argue that the McBain books are also forerunners of the modern police procedural. I know exactly what you mean about the differences between them and the Martin Beck series, but they certainly established the sub-genre in the States.

    Norman - Roseanna really is a classic. And no worries about having read it long ago; I hadn't read it in a very long time, either, and in fact, I refreshed myself on some of the details before I wrote this post. It had been a while...

  12. Great post!

    I like all the books in their series, but for me, Roseanna is the most memorable of them all. What stays with me every time I read it, is Martin Beck´s obsession with his victim, even before she has a name, and his dedication to catch her killer, to see her righted, I think you can say.

    And now I really *must* run - I left Arnold Kickinbottom in a tight spot yesterday - he is very non-plussed!

  13. Dorte - Thank you : )! And you are right; Beck is really haunted by Roseanna, and I found that a major point in the book. His sense of justice - that he wants to see her vindicated - really is strong, too.

    Now, please go help poor Arnold! Don't leave him in a difficult place for too long. I actually have to focus on my own book today, too. There are two places where I need to straighten some things out so they won't confuse the reader.

  14. Thanks Margot. I think you really hit the nail on the head. I found Henning Mankell's first had a similar feel -- the slow painstaking process with dead ends, the importance of teamwork etc. Somehow in both books nothing much happens and yet we are drawn in.

    And if we're getting into spotting similarities with Mankell ... is it a coincidence that the second novel in both series involves a translocation to a remote country?

  15. Tim - Thanks for your kind remarks. You're right that there really are similar feels to the early Mankells and Sjöwall and Wahlöö's work. As you say, they aren't thrillers - in fact, in many ways, the opposite. Still, the reader gets irresistibly pulled into the investigation.

    You know, as I think about it, it probably is no accident that for both series, the second novel involves a move to another country. Mankell's work has arguably been heavily influenced by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if he was inspired as far as locale, too.