Authors: Maj Sjöwall,Per Wahlöö
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Crime
What I don't like about writing an introduction is that you can't give anything away. You can only tease. You can say to the reader that you are in for a great ride, a great set of characters and a great story but you can't really make your case. You don't want to ruin it for the reader, so you can't exactly say why. So an intro¬duction is sort of a 'trust me' proposition. I am here to tell you that if you are about to hop aboard and ride this story, then you are in for a great ride. Trust me.
I first took this ride about thirty years ago. A child of the movies and television, I have come to most of the masters of crime fiction through the visual medium. I read Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Joseph Wambaugh after seeing their work on the screen first In each case I found the written stories that spawned the screen stories to be much deeper, more detailed and more gripping as they took the reader to the place no movie or televi¬sion show can go; inside a character's thoughts.
So too was the case with the work of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The movie came first. My father and I both loved cop flicks. We went together often. One night in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, we went to see The Laughing Policeman with Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern. I didn't know it was based on a book until I saw the credits. I liked the movie, with the deeply brooding Detective Martin played by Matthau and the more reactive, loose cannon Detective Larsen played by Dern.
Not long after, I bought the book and quickly learned that the original story was not set in San Francisco, California, but in Stockholm, Sweden, and that the film's Detective Jake Martin was actually Detective Martin Beck in the book. No matter, I had invested. I read the book and there begun one of the best lessons a writer in waiting could ever have. In the next several years I moved from book to book in the Martin Beck series. I found it to be one of the most authentic, gripping and profound collec¬tion of police procedurals ever accomplished.
Sjowall and Wahloo set out to write a ten book, ten year glimpse of Swedish society, using the detective novel as the magnifying glass through which they would conduct their examination. They achieved their goal with great mastery. As a young reader with the intention - hope of writing crime novels someday, there were no better teachers when it came to showing how the detective story could rise above mere entertainment to the point of holding a mirror up to ourselves and the societies we build. Their work constantly reminds me of something the great writer Richard Price once said when questioned about his repeated forays into the realms of crime and detection. He said that he liked writing about detectives because when you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city. Long before he said that, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo knew it and practised it. The Martin Beck books tell us so much more than just how a crime is solved. Beautifully structured, textured and rendered, they tell us how a crime happens and how a city, country and society can often be complicit. They take us beneath the surface. They tell it like it is. Though the series now ages past thirty years, there is both a timeliness and timelessness to the books that make them just as important now as the days they first came out of the bindery.
The Locked Room is flat out one of my favourites in the series.
I am blown away by the authors' wonderful and original take on a standard mystery contraption - a locked room murder. I am in awe of the novel as a showcase of Martin Beck at his brooding best The authors avoid the norms by weaving two seemingly sepa¬rate investigations through the book; the story of a bank robbery gone bad and the story of Beck's investigation into, what appears to be an unsolvable case, a man found shot to death in a room with the door and window locked. The case has been all but given up on until the detective returns to the job after recovering from wounds received in an earlier story. As he deals with his physical and mental recovery he works the locked room case over like a child works on a loose tooth with his tongue.
From the standpoint of a writer who has some experience attempting such things, there is no finer example of how to do it. Sjowall and Wahloo do it with completely convincing detail, humour and that most important ingredient; momentum. The book never lags. It never fails to keep the reader in his seat
All the while the book carries the vivid imagery of Stockholm and its underbelly of crime that Beck traverses. I read this book long before I ever visited Stockholm but the sense of the city, its smells, its sounds, its hidden dangers and beauties are vibrantly alive. The city is as much a character in the book as any person who appears in its pages.
What's more, the book carries a dark irony: the idea of justice in which we are all guilty of something, and if we are not punished for the crimes we have committed then we are punished for those we have not. It is a daring proposition and one I have seen in a number of other books. But I have not seen it played out so well as in these pages.
As with the entire series of ten books, Martin Beck is the pole that holds the tent up in The Locked Room. His presence looms over every page whether he is actually on it or not. To me Beck is the original grinder, an empathist who takes it all in and grinds it constantly in his head. He grinds the case down to powder and only then does he see the solution. He operates with a certain melancholy that is just right He is alone but not lonely. He is the thinking man's detective. The writer Joseph Wambaugh once said that the best crime stories are not about how a cop works on a case, but how a case works on a cop. Martin Beck is a most fitting example of the accuracy of this. And The Locked Room is a most fitting case for him to work and be worked upon.
The bells of St Maria struck two as she came out from the metro station on Wollmar Yxkullsgatan. Before hurrying on towards the Maria Square she halted and lit a cigarette.
The din of the church bells reverberated through the air, reminding her of the dreary Sundays of her childhood. She'd been born and grown up only a few blocks from the Church of St Maria, where she'd also been christened and confirmed - the latter almost twelve years ago. All she could remember about her confirmation classes was having asked the vicar what Strindberg had meant when he'd written of the "melancholy descant” of the St Maria bells. But she couldn't recall his answer.
The sun was beating down on her back. After crossing St Paulsgatan she eased her pace, not wishing to break into a sweat All of a sudden she realized how nervous she was and regretted not having taken a tranquillizer before leaving home.
Reaching the fountain in the middle of the square, she dipped her handkerchief in the cool water and, walking away, sat down on a bench in the shade of the trees. She took off her glasses and rubbed her face with the wet handkerchief, polished her glasses with the hem of her light-blue shirt, and put them on again. The large lenses reflected the light, concealing the upper half of her face. She took off her wide-rimmed blue denim hat, lifted up her straight blonde hair, so long it brushed against her shoulders, and wiped the nape of her neck. Then, putting on her hat, she pulled it down over her brow and sat quite still, her handkerchief crum¬pled up into a ball between her hands.
After a while she spread the handkerchief out beside her on the bench and wiped the palms of her hands on her jeans. She looked at her watch: half past two. A few minutes to calm down before she had to go.
When the clock struck 2.45 she opened the flap of the dark-green canvas shoulder bag that lay in her lap, picked up her handkerchief, which by now was completely dry, and without folding it slipped it into the bag. Then she got up, slung the leather strap of the bag over her right shoulder, and started walking.
Approaching Hornsgatan she grew less tense; everything, she persuaded herself, would work out fine.
It was Friday, the last day of June, and for many people the summer holidays had just begun. On Hornsgatan, both on the street itself and on the pavements, the traffic was lively. Emerging from the square, she turned off to the left and went into the shadow of the houses.
She hoped today had been a wise choice. She'd weighed the pros and cons and realized she might have to put off her project until next week. No harm in that, though she wasn't too keen on exposing herself to such mental stress.
She got there earlier than she'd planned and halted on the shady side of the street, observing the big window opposite her. Its shiny glass reflected the sunshine, and the heavy traffic partially blocked her view. But one thing she noticed. The curtains were drawn.
Pretending to be window shopping, she walked slowly up and down the pavement, and although there was a large clock hanging outside a watchmaker's shop nearby she kept looking at her watch. And all the while she kept an eye on the door on the other side of the street.
At 2.55 she walked over to the pedestrian crossing at the cross¬roads. Four minutes later she was standing outside the door of the bank.
Before pushing it open, she lifted the flap of her bag. Walking in, she let her gaze sweep over the office, a branch of one of Sweden's major banks. It was long and narrow; the front wall consisted of the door and the only window. To her right a counter ran all the way from the window to the short wall at the other end, and on her left four desks were fixed to the long wall. Beyond them were a low, round table and two stools upholstered in red-chequered material. Furthest away were some stairs, rather steep, disappearing below to what presumably was the bank's safe-deposit vault.
Only one customer had come in before her - a man. He was standing at the counter, stuffing banknotes and documents into his briefcase. Behind the counter two female cashiers were sitting. Further away a male cashier stood leafing through a card index.
Going up to one of the desks, she fished out a pen from the outer pocket of her bag, meanwhile watching out of the corner of her eye as the customer with the briefcase went out through the street door. Taking a deposit slip out of the holder, she began doodling on it. After a little while she saw the male cashier go over to the door and lock it. Then he bent down and flicked the hook holding open the inner door. As it swung closed with a hissing sound, he resumed his place-behind the counter.
She took her handkerchief out of her bag. Holding it in her left hand and the deposit slip in her right, as she approached the counter, she pretended to blow her nose.
Then she stuffed the deposit slip into her bag, brought out an empty nylon shopping bag, and laid it on the counter. Clutching her pistol, she pointed it at the female cashier and, holding her handkerchief in front of her mouth, said: 'This is a hold-up. The gun's loaded and if you make any trouble I'll shoot. Put all the money you've got into this bag.'
The woman behind the counter stared at her and, slowly taking the nylon bag, laid it down in front of her. The other woman stopped combing her hair. Her hands sank slowly She opened her mouth as if to say something, but couldn't get a sound out. The man, who was still standing behind his desk, gave a violent start
Instantly she pointed the pistol at him and yelled: 'Stay where you are! And put your hands where I can see them.'
Impatiently waving the barrel of the pistol at the woman in front of her, who was obviously paralysed with fright, she went on: 'Hurry up with the money! All of it!'
The cashier began stuffing wads of banknotes into the bag. When she'd finished, she laid it on the counter.
Suddenly the man at the desk said: "You'll never get away with this. The police will -
'Shut up!' she screamed.
Then she threw her handkerchief into her open bag and grabbed the nylon shopping bag. It felt nice and heavy. Backing slowly towards the door, she pointed the pistol at each of the bank's employees in turn.
All of a sudden someone came running towards her from the stairway at the far end of the room: a tall, blond man in well-pressed pants and a blue blazer with shiny buttons and a big gold emblem stitched to the breast pocket
A loud bang filled the room and went on thundering between the walls. As her arm jerked upward to the ceiling she saw the man in the blazer being flung backwards. His shoes were brand new and white, with thick, grooved, red rubber soles. Only as his head hit the stone floor with a horrible dull thud did she realize she'd shot him.
Dropping the pistol into her bag, she stared wild-eyed at the three horror-stricken people behind the counter. Then she rushed for the door. Fumbling with the lock, she had time to think before emerging into the street 'Calm now, I must walk perfectly calmly.' But once out on the pavement, she started half-running towards the crossroads.
She didn't see the people around her - she was only aware of bumping against several of them and of the pistol shot which went on thundering in her ears.
She rounded the corner and started running, the shopping bag in her hand and the heavy satchel bumping against her hip. Jerking open the door of the building where she'd lived as a child, she took the old familiar way out into the courtyard, checked herself, and fell to a walk. Passing straight through the porch of a gazebo she came out into another back yard. She descended the steep stairway into a cellar and sat down on the bottom step.