Today’s Scandinavian detective fiction started here

detective fiction

If we can take Henning Mankell’s word for it, Roseanna is the granddaddy of all contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction—and who better than Mankell, author of the celebrated Kurt Wallander series, can make this claim, as he does in the Introduction to this intriguing detective novel? Originally published in 1965, Roseanna was the first in a series of ten mystery novels written by the husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall (the wife) and Per Wahlöö (the husband). The last of the series, The Terrorists, appeared in 1975.


Roseanna (Martin Beck #1) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1965) 226 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)


In reintroducing the Martin Beck series to a contemporary audience, Mankell points out that Sjöwall and Wahlöö, both Marxists, were the first Scandinavian crime writers to recognize the social setting in which their stories were set. “They realized that there was a huge, unexplored territory,” Mankell writes, “in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism.” However, though this perspective may be evident in the later novels in the Martin Beck series, social criticism is difficult to find in Roseanna. Much more obvious are the pains the authors took to underline the tedium and wasted time and effort of real-life policing (in contrast to the accelerated progress we see from most crime writers). Roseanna is, above all, a classic police procedural, tracing in meticulous detail the efforts over many years of Beck and his colleagues in the Swedish police as well as an American detective to solve a devilishly complex murder case.

Martin Beck is a First Detective Inspector with the Homicide Bureau of the Swedish National Police, based in Stockholm. Summing up their physical description of the man, the authors write “Some women would say he was good looking but most of them would see him as quite ordinary.” Beck treats his wife in a way that today we would call disdainful and sexist, but that was nothing out of the ordinary in the 1960s, in Sweden or anywhere else in the developed nations of the world.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö write in a matter-of-fact style devoid of literary flourishes. Every once in a while they offer up a clever remark: “7 January arrived and looked like 7 January. The streets were full of grey, frozen people without money.” This is about as far as the authors go in entertaining the reader. Instead, by focusing on the most minute details from the very beginning, Sjöwall and Wahlöö attempt — and largely succeed — in conveying the frustration felt by the detectives involved in the case.

If you’re among that minority of readers of detective fiction who favor police procedurals, you should love Roseanna. If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, you won’t find it here.

For additional reading

For a guide to the best Scandinavian mysteries and thrillers, check out The best Nordic noir series from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.

You might also enjoy my posts:

For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). If you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

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