Friday, January 22, 2010

Something new ...

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö blazed a number of crime fiction trails, among them those of social criticism, a multiplayer cast of detectives, and elevation of the investigator's personal life to importance comparable with that of the mysteries he or she investigates.

(Whether, in fact, they blazed the trails or were early followers is immaterial here. At any rate, they were among the first to tread the paths in question.)

Here is some of what I've noticed in Roseanna:

1) The team approach to the police procedural.

2) The occasional jab at military regimes, though these have been far less frequent that I'd expected.

3) Great stress on the protagonist's everyday problems.

4) And, what I consider the book's most impressive innovation, one cited by Henning Mankell in his introduction and handled beautifully by Sjöwall and Wahlöö: its portrayal of an investigation that moves in fits and starts, with long stretches when nothing happens.

If you've read Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which of their innovations most impressed you? Which have held up best? Which seem less exciting now that they might have in the 1960s? If you haven't read them, what crime-fiction innovations have impressed you most? Who introduced those innovations? Who perfected them? And what crime fiction innovations are less exciting now than they must have seemed when new?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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29 Comments:

Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

At the time, I liked this one best (LP). But I also thought their locked room mystery--called THE LOCKED ROOM, I think, was one of the better ones I'd read. Haven't read them since the seventies though. Another thing, the setting was exotic then. Now we have many set in other parts of the world. Not so many then.

January 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Locked Room was indeed the title, at least in English. One thing I'll want to look out for if I read more in the series is how it relates to crime fiction that went before.

That's a good point about the setting seeming more exotic in the 1970s. Here's something else: There's a scene in Roseanna in which one of the Swedish officers has to talk with police Amsterdam, and the Swedish officer makes a self-deprecating remark along the lines of "You should hear my German!" Today the officers might have communicated in English.

January 22, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Like pattinase it’s been so long since I’ve read the Sjöwall and Wahlöö novels that I can no longer remember what their innovations were. But when I began to really explore period hard-boiled crime fiction a couple of years ago I was struck by how many authors chose to write in the first-person narrative. I know that the first person came into fairly wide use in the 19th c. but crime fiction seems perfectly suited for this form. It’s so visceral and immediate. Perfect for delivering realistic dialogue with all its colloquialisms and slang. I believe Carroll John Daly is credited with pioneering the form in “Black Mask” in the early 1920s, hard on his heels was Dashiell Hammett who improved upon it, and Raymond Chandler perfected it. It’s obviously harder to write convincingly in the first-person than it may seem. For example, Michael Connelly’s first-person Bosch novels are not as successful as his third-person ones.

January 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have read the disarmingly commonsense explanation that first-person can be harder to write because the narrator has to be in every scene.

Sjowall and Wahloo do some interesting little point-of-view shifts in Rosenna, I think with the intention of throwing the reader slightly off-guard -- as a real-life investigator might be following a puzzling case. And the concluding chapters are a masterpiece of creating suspense when little is happening. They would make a great movie scene, it they have not done so already.

January 22, 2010  
Blogger Philip said...

As you progress through the Beck series you might be interested to see pictures of a few locations http://bit.ly/4Lmb7I.

January 23, 2010  
Anonymous TASMA said...

The novels featuring S&W and Van der Valk are museum pieces. In their time, for an English audience, the settings were exotic and the domestic interludes were unusual. And the latter is the important consideration for krimi readers. It suggests a question you might pose:

Name the first wife of a crime-fiction protagonist to get a more than passing mention in a crime novel.

January 23, 2010  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

When I first read Sjowall and Wahloo S&W a work colleague was an Ed McBain fanatic and we agreed it was the team work approach to the police procedural that made the books special.
I would agree with Patti that The Locked Room is one of the best in the series with a varying perspective,two parallel investigations. Beck on his own investigating a death and a gross waste of police resources on the other investigation of a series of bank robberies.
The team work approach has held up very well when you read the 'offspring' of S&W,such as Helene Tursten or Mari Jungstedt. And of course virtually every crime writer today will concentrate on the protagonist's personal life.

January 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip. The sights I'd want to see after reading Roseanna would be the canals and the locks, if they're still there.

January 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TASMA, they might be museum pieces, but not all museum pieces are dusty specimens in glass cases accompanied by handwritten cards. Some are electrifying.

Off my recent reading, I'd say the domestic interludes were the least startling because the intervening years have made such things so familiar. (Still, I like the way Sjowall and Wahloo handled them in Roseanna, the repetitive nature of Beck's complaints emphasizing the stagnation of his marriage.) By now, one might say. domestic interludes have been thoroughly domesticated.

I hesitate to pose your excellent question, though, until I can figure out the answer myself. Mme. Maigret comes to mind, but I suspect the true answer is a good deal earlier than that.

January 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah, I'd observed before that Nordic crime writers seem to specialize in the team approach. Hakan Nesser is another who comes to mind.

The ending of Roseanna, which combines 1960s-style suspense with Manchette-like alienation, took my attention off domestic and team issues, I have to say. It will be interesting to see how Sjowall and Wahloo take up such issues later in the series. My initial enthusiastic response after this, my first S&W book, is that S&W are underrated.

January 23, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Although the fact that they are being reissued is reassuring.

January 23, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right. The new editions may be a fortunate by-product of the English-speaking world's interest in Nordic crime fiction. I hope all the new introductions in the series are as insightful as Henning Mankell's to Roseanna.

January 23, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Just read The Locked Room. Liked it so much, especially the second half when Martin Beck is fully involved and is thinking and pulling the plot lines together which till then are all over the place.

The team approach is good, but I think a very strong, thoughtful main character as Beck or Commissario Brunetti in Donna Leon's series, who mulls, stews, visits various people, tries various scenarios and then solves the crime(s), is needed--at least for me.

January 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Welcome, Kathy, and thanks for the note. I think I mentioned that for all the reputation that Sjowall and Wahloo have for being the first or second to take the team approach, I found a greater concentration on Martin Beck than I expected. Perhaps that's because a number of S&W's successors have taken the team approach further. Hakan Nesser's books investigate the domestic lives of some of the protagonist’s colleagues, for example. Maybe Sjowall and Wahloo pay even more attention to Beck's colleagues in the later books. I think I'll try to read the series in order, so perhaps I'll be able to track this.

And how about Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalba no as a mulling, stewing, visiting protagonist?

January 24, 2010  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

About 10 years ago I set out to acquire as many S&W titles as I could find. I'm glad I did and will enjoy re-reading them. It's good that they get reprinted periodically, too. I agree with your 4th point as the use of lateral thinking either with a team or as the result of coming to a dead end is a fascinating device in this style of police procedural. It allows for more character development while the various clues realign to provide the answer to the puzzle. In less talented hands this can lead to a very boring mid-point in a story, but S&W certainly gave future writers some great guidelines for overcoming that.

I recently saw 4 episodes of the Swedish TV series, Beck, based on Sjowall and Wahloo's characters. Very entertaining!

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, I'd like to see if that TV series captures the texture of the books. It's common for crime writers these days to tell the reader that an investigation is long and boring, to say that a cop is almost falling asleep in his car or overdosing on cold, weak coffee, but no one I'ver ever read made me feel that ennui the way S&W did in Roseanna.

Hmm, I'll have to think about how the team approach contributes to the investigation in police procedurals, as opposed to just adding possibilities for character development. That's an interesting question.

January 25, 2010  
Blogger Gaius Sempronius Gracchus said...

I just started reading this book, my first for this team of writers.

I am about a third of the way through and am so pleased that I am glad they wrote a full ten stories with Beck.

Oddly, the first thing I noted was a point of contrast with the book I read just before this.

That was a Colin Dexter book with Inspector Morse, my first one.

No crime was committed until page 47 and you never even heard the name "Morse" until page 48.

In Roseanna, you have a corpse in the first sentence and you meet Beck at the top of page 7.

The contrast is wholly favorable to Roseanna.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a good point, Guy. For all the talk about Sjowall and Wahloo's politics, they knew how get right to the heart of the action in the time-honored murder-mystery manner.

January 26, 2010  
Blogger Gaius Sempronius Gracchus said...

And yet, immediately engaging page-turner though it is, there is no action as we use the word in regard to, say, action films.

There are no violent and sudden attacks, no gunfights, no beatings or stabbings.

There is no sex, to speak of; and that only in the past during the commission of the crime, already done when the book begins, that the police are trying to solve.

There are no crimes committed "on screen," so to speak, at all.

There is no violence or physical danger.

Rarely does anyone so much as raise his voice.

And the closest we get to police brutality or a Third Degree is Beck shouting a bit at a very uncooperative suspect.

Anyway, that's how it's been so far, and I'm more than halfway through, now.

And yet, the suspense is amazing.

Though this is far from a thriller, as that term is nowadays used, I can see why it’s considered a classic of the genre.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gracchus, Roseanna one of the great crime novels I have ever read, a staggering achievement, and you've nailed just about everything good about it. I'll say only that you'll have to amend at least one of your observations once you've finished reading it.

January 27, 2010  
Blogger Gaius Sempronius Gracchus said...

You were right.

The climax does involve physical danger, though not for Beck, and that contributes mightily to the suspense.

Did I say this would have made a great movie?

But the authors are not without humor to relieve the tension.

Chapter 25, page 169 of the Viking paperback.

“At home his wife said that he seemed absentminded, but he didn’t hear her and didn’t reply”

Chapter 26, page 173, Beck is talking to a policewoman about behaving like Roseanna.

“Of course I acted in school plays but mostly as angels or mushrooms.”

“Well, then. You’ll manage.”

Yes, indeed.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Angels or mushrooms" stuck out for me, too. And I agree that the suspense in the first scene to which you refer might well work brilliantly on screen. The long periods of idelness, which contribute much to the texture of the book, would be more problematic.

January 28, 2010  
Blogger Ghanshyam Nair said...

Regarding wives of crime fiction protagonists who get more than a passing mention, I don't know about the first, but Reginald Hill's Ellie Pascoe is a quite strongly-sketched, complex character.

January 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm waiting for an answer to TASMA's quiz, though perhaps it was more a challenge.

Name the first wife of a crime-fiction protagonist to get a more than passing mention in a crime novel.

No, I think a quiz. TASMA, come back! I've read just two Dalziel and Pascoe stories, and seem to remember Ellie as a strong supporting character. Hill certainly gives her more than passing mentions.

January 29, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I was most impressed, I think, with the way they stretched out the tailing of the murder suspect over an extended period of time.
And the level of detail they went into to describe his often labyrinthine, tortuous movements, his mundane existence, even when he wasn't aware of being observed, and his apparent frequent bouts of indecision.

They'd risk losing many readers the way they stretched out the climax, but, in addition to providing a more believable portrait of painstaking police procedural work it also served to provide a less stereotypical, and more rounded and believable, portrait of a killer

September 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, so many of those devices -- stretching out the investigation, writing about stretches of time when nothing much was happening, the suspense in the climax -- have become clichés. But man, are they fresh and exciting in Roseanna. All innovations should date this well.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter I can't recall any novel where the tailing of the chief suspect was drawn out to such an extent the way it was here.
Although that might be due to the relatively few police procedural novels I've read.

And, although I didn't need to be familiar with the city's streetscape as it was clear why he took the long roundabout route he did, it would have been interesting to track his movements on a street-map

September 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have mixed feelings about maps, though I have occasionally consulted the map that accompanies the crime novel I'm reading now. But that map is of an area where several countries meet in proximity that is significant to the plot.

I don't generally consult maps of cities, islands or other small areas. The author has to be able to hold my attention with words.

September 15, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, as a rule I completely agree with you, but the reason I have said otherwise on this occasion was due to a recent viewing of the Anthony Mann film noir, 'Side Street', and specifically a sequence photographed from a helicopter overlooking the Financial District of New York, following the progress of a climactic car chase; it was akin to observing laboratory rats scurrying about an oservational maze.

So, even though the authors successfully and effectively conveyed the suspects state of mind throughout his 'odyssey', this was one occasion where I thought that I would like to see the precise progress of this particular 'lab rat'

September 15, 2010  

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