Image of The Abominable Man, the seventh novel in the first Nordic noir series

The Abominable Man may be the best of the ten Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It’s certainly the best of the six I’ve read to date. In this, the first Nordic noir series, the left-wing couple routinely explores the disruptive changes overcoming Swedish society in the 1960s and 70s. The police themselves come in for a close look from time to time. But only in this gripping thriller do Sjöwall and Wahlöö dig deeply into the violent history of Swedish law enforcement. If anything, the sad consequences of that history represent the novel’s theme—and it’s no surprise the police do not come off well.

A senior policeman is murdered

A man of sixty, confined to a Stockholm hospital after heart surgery, is savagely murdered and mutilated in the middle of the night. An intruder with a bayonet has crawled through an open window in his ground-floor room. The patient is Chief Inspector Stig Nyman. A police officer who arrives at the scene immediately calls the Homicide Squad, and Martin Beck is awakened.

The Abominable Man (Martin Beck #7) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1971) 280 pages ★★★★★ 

Martin Beck is the long-suffering chief of the National Homicide Squad in Stockholm. Not long ago, he and his wife Inga separated, and their nineteen-year-old daughter, Ingrid, moved away from home. Beck has few friends on the force and none outside it. Most of his colleagues just tolerate him, and he them. He devotes himself to his work for the police and to building tiny, intricate models of clipper ships at home.

Image of Stockholm police headquarters, where the first Nordic noir series is set.
Stockholm police headquarters as it might have looked in 1971, when this novel was set.

In many of the investigations carried out by Beck and his team, days, weeks, even months go by before connections to the victim begin falling into place. Not so here. Because Stig Nyman is the eponymous “abominable man.” He’s an old-school policeman, a relic of the days when the Swedish police commonly beat confessions out of suspects, extorted bribes from businessmen, and often subjected the victims themselves to the harshest treatment. For Martin Beck, then, Nyman’s murder seems obviously linked in some way to the man’s brutal history on the force. And the investigation he undertakes quickly reopens old wounds as the Chief Inspector’s record enters the harsh light of day.

The first Nordic noir series: classic police procedurals

As in other novels in this series of police procedurals, the other members of Beck’s squad play major roles. Beck himself is often in the background. But in The Abominable Man he holds center stage for much of the action. His “right-hand man,” the very able Lennart Kollberg, plays a prominent role, too. As do Fredrik Melander, “the man with the legendary memory,” and Einar Rönn, who is reluctant to admit the truth of the many reports about Nyman’s illegal behavior. Sjöwall and Wahlöö give every character his due. The Homicide Squad operates as a team.

Peter Haber, who played Beck on Swedish television. Image: MHz Choice Blog

Problems with the Swedish police

Beck is interviewing Stig Nyman’s protegè, Captain Harald Hult. Hult laments when he learns of his mentor’s death, “He taught me a lot.” And Beck responds, “How to commit perjury, for example? How to copy each other’s reports so everything’ll jibe, even if every word’s a lie? How to rough people up in their cells? Where the best places are to park in peace and quiet if you want to give some poor bastard a little extra going over on the way from the precinct to Criminal?”

Yes, Martin Beck knows that such practices were common in the bad old days. But Chief Inspector Nyman’s sadism had continued to play itself out unchallenged until illness recently forced him to retire. And Hult himself is known to be violent.

How smart is the average policeman?

So, how could problems like this persist? “Sociologists got all kinds of ideas,” Beck muses. “For example, they came up with the fact that you no longer needed better than a D average to get into the Police Academy, and that the average IQ of patrolmen in Stockholm had dropped to 93.” And a colleague, a police superintendent who “had picked up his knowledge of police work at the movies,” complains: “It’s a lie! . . . And what’s more it isn’t true! And on top of that it isn’t any lower than in New York!” The exchange seems to suggest that the sociologists got it right. And, elsewhere, the authors’ portrayal of patrolmen at work reinforce the sociologists’ findings.

Today’s Swedish Police Authority has long been reformed since the time Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote five decades ago. It’s no longer the exclusive preserve of men, and qualifications for entry have been stiffened. Women hold 34 percent of the top positions in the force today. And, in a 2014 report, Sweden (along with Denmark, Finland and Luxembourg) was shown to have the lowest levels of police bribery in the European Union, with less than one percent of those surveyed expecting to be able to pay off law enforcement officers.

About the authors

Image of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, authors of the first Nordic noir series

Maj Sjöwall’s death in April 2020 at the age of eighty-four marked the closure of a major chapter in the saga of Scandinavian noir. Her husband and collaborator, Per Wahlöö, had died at forty-nine in 1975, the year the last of the ten novels in this, the original Nordic noir series, was published. The two are justifiably regarded both within Scandinavia and internationally as pioneers in the evolution of Nordic detective fiction. Authors of crime novels throughout the region cite them as sources of inspiration.

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