Sunday, August 4, 2013

R is for Roseanna

Today I am featuring Roseanna (1965) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö for my submission for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme.

Roseanna is the first in a series of ten books by the husband and wife team. The couple were dedicated Marxists and their goal was to advocate for that philosophy in their books. The earlier books in the series are more straightforward mysteries, and gradually the stories blend crime solving with criticism of the political status quo.

Quote from H. R. F. Keating, in Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books:
The ten books were planned as an assault on Swedish society, and by implication on all Western society. The authors, according to an essay Per Wahloo wrote when the series had just begun, aimed to start with one or two seemingly innocuous stories, and then, having established a sympathetic hero, Inspector Martin Beck, and a group of colleagues around him, bit by bit to introduce more and more direct criticism of the Swedish state and the Swedish way of life.
The book is very slow to start, very unlike today's books where the author is usually working to grab the reader immediately. The body of a dead girl is found, the autopsy reveals that she has been brutalized, but the body was in water for a while and they can only guess at the exact sequence of the acts involved in her death. There is a long and painstaking investigation to find out who she is and then how and where the death occurred.

I liked the slow revelation of the entire investigation so I will not go into more detail of the story, although I found many elements of it surprising and charming. The investigation does build to a thrilling climax, which surprised me at the end, because of the slow, detailed buildup. A very satisfying read overall.

One of the things that struck me throughout was that the detectives were allowed to focus so much of their time and manpower on one case over so long a time. Was this kind of crime so unusual in that time period to allow such focus? Was there less crime in that time and place?

With most of the detectives we get some idea of their personalities and how they work together, but the most fully developed character is Martin Beck, the primary detective on this case (in Stockholm). His daily life and his family life are pictured. The point of view is mainly his. He is methodical and determined, almost obsessed with solving this crime. His home life is not ideal; the spark has gone out of his marriage and he doesn't feel like he knows his children anymore.
He put down his knife and fork, mumbled “thanks for dinner,” and absorbed himself with his rigging problem. Gradually, this activity calmed him completely. He worked slowly and methodically on the model ship and had no unpleasant thoughts. If he actually heard the noise from the television in the next room, it didn't register. After a while his daughter stood on the threshold with a sullen look traces of bubblegum on her chin.
“Some guy's on the phone. Wouldn't you know, right in the middle of Perry Mason.”
Damn it, he would have to have the telephone moved. Damn it, he would have to start getting involved in his children’s upbringing. Damn it, what does one say to a child who is thirteen years old and loves the Beatles and is already developed?
Another favorite quote. His colleague, Kollberg, talks to him about the case:
“Don't think so much about the case. It isn't the first time we have failed ...”
“Don’t brood. It isn’t good for the morale.”
“The morale?”
“Yes, think what a lot of nonsense one can figure out with plenty of time. Brooding is the mother of ineffectiveness.”
I found this book to be like the Ed McBain series in that neither series was as flamboyant as I expected. The books are quieter, the detection is more methodical, than I expected. I liked the writing style; spare prose, nothing fancy.

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise.  Please visit this post to check out other entries for this letter. 

25 comments:

  1. You have reminded me I have one of their books deep within one of the TBR piles. I am going to have to make an effort to find it.

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    1. Bill, that is good, and I know you will enjoy it when you locate it.

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  2. Tracy, great review. I read this years ago, but kept hold of it. I probably need to go through 1 to 10......if time ever allows it!

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    1. Col, everything I read said that reading them in order is important. Although that is what I always to do anyway (and I know you do too), I don't know why it is important in this series.

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  3. Well-reviewed, Tracy. Not the kind of book I''' come across in bookstores here unless I pre-order.

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    1. Prashant, it is a shame the series is not easily available. It is a great series... from what I have heard and from the one I read... but there are plenty of other great books to read.

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  4. Tracy - Oh, this is an absolutely classic series, and I am so glad you chose it for R. Your review is thoughtful, detailed and interesting too. I agree with you that it starts off a bit slow, but as you say, the writing style is compelling and I do love the characters. This was such a groundbreaking series that I think any crime fiction fan should read it just on that score. And the fact that it's a great series too of course...

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    1. Thanks, Margot. The novel was not quite what I expected, but very enjoyable. And I am looking forward to continuing the series. I have the next few books in the series already.

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  5. Many crime fiction aficionados think the Martin Beck series is exemplary, an example of how mysteries should be written -- tightly, fewer rather than more words, measured amounts of action, dialogue, thinking and character development. Also, a dollop of social criticism mixed in. A perfect series.

    I like it myself, and I'm reminded I have three more to read, including The Abominable Man, which is on my TBR pile.

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    1. Kathy, it is different, different from most vintage mysteries I have read (except McBain) and of course very different from most current mysteries. I like the quieter, more methodical investigation myself, with just enough of the detective's life in evidence, but not too much.

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  6. Well, with so many 400-plus page tomes around, including mysteries, the standards set by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo show that books don't have to be long to tell a complete story. They just have to be written and plotted well and carefully.

    I think it must have taken them days to figure out the locked-room scenario in the book of that name. And what fun it would have been to figure that out.

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    1. Kathy, I definitely agree about length in books. I have found several authors lately whose books are around 200-250 pages and I find that length perfect.

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  7. Interesting that you make the comparison with McBain Tracy as the authors had in fact been translating his books into Swedish at the time and were definitely inspired by them - which takes nothing away from their wholly original contribution. My favourites from the Martin Beck series would probably have to be THE ABOMINABLE MAN and maybe THE SLEEPING POLICEMAN but they are all very impressive in my view. Thanks for the great review TracyK.

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    1. Agreed, Sergio, the two series are similar but each has its strengths. Of course, McBain wrote over 50 in his series? Amazing.

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  8. I haven't read a McBain yet. And I liked the sparse prose in Roseanna without any fancies, makes me feel that I would like McBain too. I look forward to your reviews on other books in this series.

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    1. McBain is definitely worth trying. I waited until recently to read them and I regret it. Don't know why I did not start years ago.

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  9. These books are in my brother's collection. I gotta check those out!

    Thanks for reminding!!

    Here is my CFA--R post!

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    1. Gautami, You should definitely give them a try.

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  10. I almost bought this and another one in the series at a used book store the other day! Maybe I should run back over and get them!

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    1. Peggy, As you can tell from some of the comments here, this series is definitely worth trying to see whether you will like it. I liked the first one, but I understand the series just gets better and better.

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  11. One of my favourite books and I love the measured way in which it's written although I appreciate it's not to everyone's taste.

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    1. Sarah, I am looking forward to continuing the series. I had hoped to read one a month as soon as I read this one... but I may have to wait until next year to start that process. Too many books I need (and want) to read this year.

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  12. While I really liked the book when I read it, I like it even more as time has gone by. Like you I was struck by the length of the investigation, and I was surprised by the ending. I liked this article about their writing process: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/22/crime-thriller-maj-sjowall-sweden

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    1. Thanks for that link, Rebecca. Very interesting information there. This is one of those books that I think I could enjoy even more if I had time to reread it. Sometimes you can't appreciate all the first time through.

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