Book review: Roseanna, A Martin Beck Police Mystery

Posted on Friday, November 19th, 2010

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Roseanna - A Martin Beck Police Mystery - coverWritten in 1965, this is the first of ten novels centred around the Swedish detective inspector Martin Beck. But don’t let the date put you off: the book has aged beautifully, the writing still feels fresh, and the finish stays with you long after turning the last page – it’s like a good quality claret.

The author Henning Mankell – whom British fans will know as the creator of the Wallander series – described Roseanna as a modern classic and it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. The book opens with a brilliant, almost Orwellian, first line: ‘They found the corpse on the eighth of July just after three o’clock in the afternoon.’ And from this point onward the writing zips along in a stripped-down, unsentimental style that harks back to American noir fiction and, dare I say it, shades of Ernest Hemingway.

The husband and wife team, writing alternating chapters at night while their kids slept, limited each novel to 30 chapters. And it’s refreshing to read a crime novel only 245 pages in length.  There is an absence of rambling interior monologues throughout the story; for example, on page 36 all we’re told about a character’s dilemma is, ‘It had begun to get light before he fell asleep.’  This lean style also applies to the dialogue, which, in addition, is often interspersed with contemplative silences – a pretty fair reflection of Swedish reservedness generally. Combined, these effects allow the story to move along at a good clip. Within the space of two sentences the action jumps from a waterway in Motala to a smoke-filled interview room in Stockholm, and no chapter is over 8 pages in length. Summaries are brutally short but effective, and for anyone studying the craft of fiction, this book is a great lesson in getting from A to B in the most economical way possible.

The portrayal of characterization is both authentic and humorous. A police officer finds a body but is more worried about his wife’s reaction to missing their upcoming holiday. On day three of the investigation Martin Beck is wandering around the crime scene, not thinking of the murder but a taxi receipt he forgot to collect. Martin Beck is unquestionably the hero of the story, but he is also a troubled character, consumed by work and apathetic to his family and home.

Roseanna contains many references to the 1960s: Perry Mason is on TV; Beck’s daughter listens to The Beatles; and a copy of a library’s atlas is used rather than clicking on Google maps. But because the writing feels so fresh, the novel in no way feels dated. The main drawback of the novel concerns the plot: As deep in as page 100, we haven’t yet encountered a suspect or even a possible suspect, and there’s a whiff of deus ex machina when the big break comes at around page 165. Also, the book could have benefited from more ‘outdoor action’ and less recorded transcripts or interview-room conversations. But make no mistake, this is a modern classic – Mankell was spot on – and it deserves to be read for many years to come.

This modern classic is reviewed by our guest blogger Charles Daly. Thanks for another great review, Charles!

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Our rating: ★★★★½

  • Author: Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (September 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307390462
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307390462

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Tagged as 1965, 2008, crime, detective, fition, hemingway, henning mankell, maj sjowall, martin beck, Mystery, per wahloo, reprint, vintage, wallander+ Categorized as By year, 2008, By rating, 4 Stars, By genre, By rating, By year, By genre, Mystery
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