The Fire Engine that Disappeared
Sjöwall and Wahlöö, translated by Joan Tate
First published in Sweden, 1969, P. A. Norstedt & Söners Forlag
This edition Fourth Estate (HarperCollinsPublishers) 2011
This is the fifth in the ambitious and influential series of ten novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The series, dating from 1960s Sweden, is subtitled The Story of a Crime, and is intended as a socialist critique of a society in crisis. That sounds a bit heavy, but the books are written with a great deal of humour (both character-based and one-liners) and are also thoroughly satisfying police procedurals.
As with all procedural series, there is a team of police which shares the investigations. Martin Beck is the lead character, but actually doesn’t play a massive role in this book. He is plagued by minor health problems and had an unsatisfactory, humdrum home life with his wife and two children. An account of his perfect weekend (spent alone at home with some beer, building a matchstick model of the Cutty Sark), is hilarious.
Gunvald Larsson is a bullish ex-seaman whose bravery and tenacity make up for his lack of finesse. Larsson begins the book as hero of the hour, saving most of the residents of an apartment block which explodes while he keeping one of its residents under surveillance. Larsson and Beck’s sidekick Lennart Kollberg are constantly at loggerheads, adding an interesting dynamic to team meetings. The calm and logical Fredrick Melander patiently sifts clues and follows up leads. The youngest member of the team, Skacke, is generally disregarded as an idiot, but works hard to earn his keep. The oldest member, Evald Hammar, is counting the days until his retirement.
We are also reintroduced to a guest star who appeared earlier in the series, the laid-back but surprisingly effective policeman Per Månsson in Malmö, who picks up the reins of the case when the clues move south. Månsson is a great character with an interesting approach to his home life and his work.
All of the characters play a part in uncovering the crime which is hidden beneath the apparently accidental explosion and death of a small-time crook, but which proves to have deep roots.
The politics are mainly soft-pedalled, expressed through the characters’ mild dissatisfaction with everything from care homes to reform schools. However, the authors can be very acerbic:
If he had been in charge of the disturbances which had taken place during that long hot summer and which were generally regarded with great anxiety, then probably most of them would not have occurred. Instead they were handled by people who thought that Rhodesia was somewhere near Tasmania and that it was illegal to burn the American flag but positively praiseworthy to blow your nose on the Vietnamese. These people thought that water cannons, rubber truncheons and slobbering German shepherd dogs were the best means of dealing with human beings, and the results ran according to those beliefs.
The disturbances of the 1960s are a fading memory now, but it is good to be reminded that people cared.
However, the tone is generally one of black humour, obviously influenced by Ed McBain’s work. The first paragraphs give a taste of this:
The man lying dead on the tidily made bed had first taken off his jacket and tie and hung them over the chair by the door. He had then unlaced his shoes, placed them under the chair and stuck his feet into a pair of black leather slippers. He had smoked three filter-tipped cigarettes and stubbed them out in the ashtray on the bedside table. Then he had lain down on his back on the bed and shot himself through the mouth.
That did not look quite so tidy.
About this edition
This book is from a new edition for the Swedish classics, and I am not that impressed with the presentation. The books deserve better covers than this increasingly standard silhouette/dramatic backdrop approach – a cheap and cheerful matter of Photoshopping two stock photographs together. I much preferred the minimalist covers of the last generation of Beck novels (pictured below) which used just the one stock photograph.
And also, they’ve dropped all the umlauts from the names. Is that allowed?
On the plus side, this edition has a charmingly frank introduction by Colin Dexter – ‘When I was invited to write the introduction to The Fire Engine that Disappeared, I somewhat guiltily realized that I had never read a single word written by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.’
The book has retained the valuable PS TM section that I remember from the previous editions. The PS contains a brief history of the police procedural, a section on the legacy of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, an author-team biography, and recommendations for further reading. If I were a crime publisher I’d put a PS in every book, although the TM might be overkill.
Anyway, book-nerdery aside, I found Fire Engine the funniest of the Martin Beck series. Definitely worth picking up if you’re not already a fan.
Final destination: Back to the library
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.