Friday, May 7, 2010

Review of Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Vintage Crime, translated 1967, published in Swedish in 1965)

The body of a young woman is dredged from a canal on the inland waterways of Sweden, roughly halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg. The case is assigned to Martin Beck, First Detective with Homicide Squad of the National Police, based in Stockholm. Initially, identifying the woman and how she ended up in the lock is a complete mystery. Slowly, Beck and his colleagues start to piece together who she is and her final couple of days, but identifying her killer proves to be a more difficult task given the lack of eye witnesses or forensic evidence.

Roseanna forms part of my Classic Crime Fiction Curriculum Challenge; one of a set of ten must-read crime novels published before 1970. It was recommended because it’s credited with introducing a new kind of crime writing – socially realist police procedurals that provided accounts of the everyday lives of ordinary police officers, the interlinking of various agencies, the banal politics of personal and institutional interactions, the mundane and tedious practices of detection, and the role of crime in society. The police officers are, for the most part, ordinary people doing difficult jobs, trying to balance home commitments with the demands of being a detective. And this is what is striking about Roseanna. There is a sense of progression, but it is not driven along at breakneck speed, with an endless succession of cliffhangers. Instead the story meanders along at a relatively sedate pace, detailing how the case is patiently and dogmatically investigated, eventually reaching a relatively understated climax. In fact, the whole book feels a little understated, telling the story in a quite functional style, with little to no back story concerning the characters, and no excess description. The characterisation is fine, although I never really felt I got to know any of them to any great extent, and the plotting is carefully constructed. I suspect that if Sjowall and Wahloo were to seek publication for Roseanna today they would be encouraged to spice up the story, rev up the pace, and add in a whole lot of tension, and I guess I’m so attuned to that now that I spent the first fifty pages wondering when things were going to change gear. But the gear change is really not needed; sometimes less is more. Nevertheless, I find it quite difficult to conceive Roseanna as a book that broke the mould and started a new way of writing crime fiction given the vast quantity of work that follows in their path, some of which advances what they started and branches off in new directions. That said, it is a fine piece of work that reads just as well now as it no doubt did forty years ago.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I love all of their books, especially THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and THE LOCKED ROOM. Glad they're being reissued.

Dorte H said...

As I was one of the people who recommended this one, I am pleased that you like it. It may be true that you don´t get to know the characters very well in the first book, but you do throughout the series. Besides, I liked the way Martin Beck strove to get to know the victim. She wasn´t just another dead body to him.