Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

I bought this book a couple of years ago when I first started getting interested in translated crime fiction (for the record my first one was a Larsson but Asa rather than Stieg). I rescued the book from my TBR pile today because it’s going be In The Spotlight at Margot Kinberg’s excellent crime fiction blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist this coming week.

On a summer’s day in Sweden the body of a young woman is dredged from a lake. Roseanna depicts in realistic detail the process of identifying first the woman and then her killer.

It’s a bit shameful in crime fiction circles to have to admit to never having heard of the ten Martin Beck books before a couple of years ago, let alone acknowledging that I’ve never read one until now. Like Peter from Detectives Beyond Borders, one of my immediate and overwhelming sensations as I started reading was that I was discovering the source material for many of the characters & writing styles that these books inspired in the more recently published works I am more familiar with. From that perspective alone the book was a delight to read.

But there is, of course, much more than that or else the book and its series mates would not still be being re-issued every few years. The thing that struck me most about the style of the book was its realism. Policing is depicted as a slow process in which the vast bulk of the time was spent on activities and leads that would ultimately prove to go nowhere. Of course in 1965 this was even more true than it is today as communicating with other police forces and international jurisdictions was all done via physical post and the occasional unintelligible trans-Atlantic phone call.

Martin Beck too is realistic, perhaps a little too much so. If the phrase ‘dour Swede’ has been over-used since Scandinavian crime fiction has become flavour of the month then surely the blame must lie mostly at the feet of the rarely smiling, crowd hating, always ill, never wanting to go home Martin Beck. As a characterisation I think he’s marvelous but as a human being I’d rather not be stuck in an elevator for any great length of time with him. However his dogged persistence in doing the work that needed to be done regardless of how time consuming and potentially fruitless it might be, is quite wonderful. And there are glimpses of a very dry humour in the book though I did get the feeling these were being rationed by the authors in the way that a strict parent might ration a child’s sweets.

The edition of the book I read had an introduction by Henning Mankell in which he discussed his own joy at reading the book when it was first released and described Sjowall and Wahloo’s very clear plan to use “crime and criminal investigation as a mirror of Swedish society…they realised there was a huge, unexplored territory in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism”. In Roseanna the authors tackled the nature of bureaucracy, the rise of consumerism and even used the nature of the crime itself in a country that prided itself on being the kind of place where such things did not happen with a subtlety that I would dearly love to see more of in modern fiction.

I do have a minor grizzle about this translation being a bit too full of modern Americanisms, for example ‘vamp’ being used as a verb, to be totally authentic to the book’s time and place and I would be curious to read a contemporary translation. But that is a minor gripe about an otherwise enjoyable reading experience and I would heartily recommend the book to fans of modern police procedurals who want to know more about the history of this fine art form.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3.5/5

Translator Lois Roth; Publisher Harper Perennial [this edition 2006, original edition 1965]; ISBN 9780007232833; Length 245 pages

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Most crime fiction book bloggers probably read this one a long time before they started blogging but it has been reviewed at How Mysterious and Reviewing the Evidence

This entry was posted in book review, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Sweden. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this review, and thanks so much for mentioning In The Spotlight. I was actually wondering what you’d think of the novel, so I’m glad you enjoyed it, minor gripes and all. I have to agree with you, Martin Beck isn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute party guy, is he? Still, there is a lot in this book, and I was very glad that Patti at Pattinase suggested I spotlight it.


  2. Norman says:

    I am very pleased you enjoyed Roseanna, Bernadette. I admit I haven’t read all the Martin Beck books!
    I read Roseanna in the 1970s, and over the years I rationed myself [they were difficult to find in second hand bookshops] but in 2008 and 2009 read The Locked Room and The Fire Engine That Disappeared, and was astonished that after almost a twenty year gap in my Martin Beck reading the books seemed so fresh and such good examples of the police procedural even without mobile phones and DNA. I have my last two Murder at the Savoy, and The Abominable Man saved up as a treat to read in the excellent Harper Perennial editions.


  3. Maxine says:

    I finished the last one (The Terrorists) on my recent holiday, and taken together they are really magnificent. Roseanna is very much an introduction; the books continue to get more and more interesting, in my opinion, as each one takes a traditional crime plot and tells the story in authentic detail, together with external comment such as the effects of changing the police organisation from regional units into a national, almost military, squad (seeds for Stieg Larsson as well as many others!). I suppose the translations might seem a bit dated now as they were done a long time ago.


  4. kathy durkin says:

    So glad to see this review. “Roseanna” is on my TBR list to finish the Scandinavian Book Challenge (although I have four books on that list and plan to go over the total). Although I have read 3 of 10 of Sjowall/Wahloo’s books, I want to parcel reading the remaining 7 out like sweets to look forward to. I guess I’ll buy it as the library here has an old version and I do want to read Mankell’s introduction.


  5. Peter says:

    Hmm, my comment does not appear, and no indication that it’s awaiting moderation. I hope it shows up. I love discussing this crime classic!


  6. Peter did you make a comment before the one that has appeared above? If so there is no evidence of it in my queue (I don’t have comment moderation turned on). Or can you not see your comment above? I don’t have a solution to either problem I’m afraid…some breakdown in the Australian-US alliance or something is all I can think of.


  7. Dorte H says:

    Better late than never! They are all of good quality, but Roseanna is one of the very best of this series.

    “As a characterisation I think he’s marvelous but as a human being I’d rather not be stuck in an elevator for any great length of time with him.” LOL


  8. Pingback: film and fiction reviews « Scandinavian Crime Fiction

  9. Pingback: Books of the Month – August 2010 | Reactions to Reading

  10. Pingback: 2010 End of Year Book Survey | Reactions to Reading

  11. Pingback: 2010 – The Favourites | Reactions to Reading

  12. Pingback: Crime Fiction Alphabet: Z is for Zeitgeist | Reactions to Reading

  13. Pingback: Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö « crimepieces

  14. Pingback: Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

Comments are closed.