Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sweden: In the footsteps of the first police series - up the Göta Canal with 'Roseanna'

The second stop on WhereDunnit's crime fiction tour of Sweden: the Göta Canal at Lake Boren.

The ten books by Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo
featuring Detective Martin Beck of Sweden's National Homicide Squad, which together form one work consisting of ten individual instalments, have been called the first true police procedurals, and the first great series of police thrillers. As a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction for several years, I felt it was about time I went back to this source.

It's perhaps difficult now to appreciate quite how revolutionary the concept was - a series with a protagonist detective who was an ordinary man, not a hero or Lord or ratiocinative genius, but instead which demonstrated the day-to-day slog and tedium of a protracted investigation.

It is clear where Henning Mankell found some of his inspiration for Kurt Wallander - in fact, so many European policemen can trace their lineage back to Sjowall & Wahloo's creation, an introspective, wise, philosophising man with an unhappy home-life. In this very first novel, Beck reminds himself: "You have three of the most important virtues a policeman can have – you are stubborn and logical and completely calm."

The strange thing about these books is that there is so much that is familiar and up-to-date that it's easy to forget that the first one, Roseanna, was first published in 1965. It's only when the policemen have to wait for weeks and exchange letters and crackling telephone calls with their counterparts in Lincoln, Nebraska, that the reader is pulled up with a start, to realise that this was a world without mobile phones, computerized records and internet searches.

Roseanna begins with a dead body, specifically located in date and time and place, being pulled out of the water at the western edge of Lake Boren, where a series of five locks steps the Göta Canal up to Lake Vättern. (See map - the starting point of the plot is indicated by the green circle). The investigation into the death of the girl - eventually identified as the eponymous Roseanna - develops slowly through the following seven months until Beck finally arrests the killer.

It is wonderful to discover that the cruise ship which features so vividly in the story in 1963 – the MS Diana – still operates the route today: you can take the same cruise along the Gota Canal on the same ship as the ill-fated Roseanna! The scene of the crime was cabin A7: the MS Diana was refitted in 1987, and Cabin A7 is still on the main deck, but not quite in the correct position for Roseanna's cabin as described by Sjowall and Wahloo.

To travel on the cruise Stockholm to Gothenburg costs about £3,600 for two, although as Roseanna only made it to Boren Locks (Borenshult) a few miles east of Motala before her body was dumped in the water, you can get the experience in a two-day cruise from Soderkoping to Motala for £800 for two people in a (tiny) double cabin - a bargain, then! To see for yourself, visit the Göta Canal webpage in English.

I highly recommend the edition I read, published by Harper Perennial in 2006. It features an interesting introduction by Henning Mankell, and articles and interviews at the back by Rick Shepherd. The only criticism I have is that the jacket designer clearly hadn't read the book, as Roseanna on the front has blonde hair and much make-up and bears no resemblance to the girl in the story. I intend to collect them all in this edition, if I can get hold of them – while I'm saving to to take that cruise up the Göta Canal from Stockholm to Gothenburg……..


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I have been reading this series over the past year or so, and have been reviewing each book at Euro Crime. I posted the other day about it, here:
I am very much enjoying the books, though I am not sure it is correct to call them the first true police procedurals, as that accolade is usually given to Ed McBain - the Sjowall/Wahloo books are sometimes said to be based on those.

Please join our Friend Feed crime and mystery fiction group, where we discuss European crime novels - you are very welcome (includes Karen Meek (Euro Crime) and Barbara Fister.

WhereDunnit said...

It's an interesting point of discussion as to which was truly the first police procedural series - this one, or Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories. I'm with Rick Shepherd on this (he contributed several articles and interviews to the Harper Perennial editions)when he champions the Martin Beck books for this accolade - but then, I'm not a particular fan of Ed McBain's stories!

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My sister had recommended me those books so I had never paid attention to her, now I realize those books were related to policemen had to wait for weeks and exchange letters and crackling telephone calls.m10m