The Fire Engine That Disappeared is the fifth entry in the original Nordic noir series.

In the fifth of the ten books in the venerable Martin Beck series of police procedurals — the original Nordic noir series — the authors’s left-wing politics become more obvious than they’d been in the first four books. The Swedish couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote these novels in the 1960s were both dedicated socialists but had made a habit of treading lightly on social and political issues. And even in The Fire Engine That Disappeared they usually limit the political statements to dialogue, refraining from pontificating as the authors.

Political perspective in the original Nordic noir series

For example, here are two passages that reflect the authors’s known viewpoint:

The Fire Engine That Disappeared (Martin Beck #5) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1969) 226 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

  • One of Martin Beck’s colleagues ponders the culpability of a small-time drug trafficker, realizing that “between him and the root of the evil lay an enormous complex of political miscalculations and failed social philosophy.”
  • And here they are describing another, unconventional police officer’s views about the attitudes of the police toward demonstrators: “These people thought that water cannons, rubber billy clubs and slobbering German shepherd dogs were superior aids when it came to creating contact with human beings, and the results were according to those beliefs.”

A reflection of reality in this police procedural

Politics aside, The Fire Engine That Disappeared is a complex and deeply satisfying example of the police procedural. Martin Beck, now a Chief Inspector, is relatively uninvolved in the protracted investigation he and his team undertake to learn whether a fire in which three people died had been deliberately set. Beck’s team, most of them familiar to us from the earlier books, play larger roles, as do several characters new to the series — and everyone’s private life comes under the microscope as well.

Police mysteries on television and film routinely cover just hours or a few days at most. In reality, which Sjöwall and Wahlöö are clearly intent on respecting, a complicated case like that in this novel can stretch over many months and involve hundreds of hours of ultimately pointless effort on the part of a large contingent of police. Expect that when you read The Fire Engine That Disappeared. If you haven’t already read the preceding entries in this original Nordic noir series, do yourself a favor, and start with Roseanna.

For additional reading

I’ve reviewed all the previous books in the Martin Beck series, beginning with the first: Roseanna (Today’s Scandinavian detective fiction started here). You’ll find many other series of crime novels from the region at The best Nordic noir series from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.

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