The ten Swedish police procedurals in the Martin Beck series launched the genre known today as Nordic or Scandinavian noir. Published from 1965 to 1975, they captured the reality of life in Sweden at a time of momentous change. The authors, a Marxist couple named Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, set out to portray the impact on Swedish society of narcotic drugs, immigration, and the agitation for social change then sweeping through the West. And this is nowhere more plain than in their superb sixth effort, Murder at the Savoy. In his introduction to the novel, novelist Arne Dahl characterizes the series as “literature emblematic of the 1968 generation.”
“You have to catch the murderer. On the double.”
Most of the Martin Beck novels follow the pattern typical in police procedurals. Chief Inspector Beck investigates high-profile crimes with his colleagues in the National Homicide Squad in Stockholm. He is one of many. Now, pressure from his superiors has forced him to fly to the city of Malmö on the southern coast. There, at “Scandinavia’s best-known restaurant,” a man walked in and shot to death a wealthy and powerful corporate executive named Viktor Palmgren. “‘It is the wish of someone higher up that you take charge of this,'” the Chief Superintendent has informed him. “‘You have to catch the murderer. On the double.'” And Beck is on his own, without the help of his team in Stockholm. Thus begins the search for the truth in what is surely one of the region’s best police procedurals.
Murder at the Savoy (Martin Beck #6) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1970) 242 pages ★★★★★
The victim is not who he seems
Grudgingly, Beck teams up with a Detective Inspector with the Malmö police force named Per Månsson. The two play leading roles in the drama. Over the course of weeks, they stumble from clue to clue to identify the man who walked into the restaurant at the Savoy, shot Palmgren in the head with a revolver, and fled through a window onto the street. With a combination of help and hindrance from their colleagues in both Malmö and Stockholm, Beck and Månsson uncover the ugly backstory to the murder. Palmgren, they learn, was not the philanthropic corporate executive the public knows. He was a human trafficker and an arms dealer who illegally sold weapons in Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique, and other African countries. And this explains the pressure on Beck from the government. Senior officials know about the true source of Palmgren’s wealth. (They may even be involved).
An ugly picture of the Swedish police
The picture of the Swedish National Police that emerges in Murder at the Savoy is unflattering. Both Beck and Månsson are saddled with incompetent and lazy officers, and a member of Beck’s team is a violence-prone sadist. Beck “was very worried, most of all by the way in which the force had been politicized and centralized after the recent reorganization. That the quality of the personnel on patrol was getting lower all the time hardy improved things.” Nor did the fact that Beck’s superiors are now political appointees without investigative experience. It’s clear that Beck and Månsson would have solved Viktor Palmgren’s murder within days at the most if the police force had simply followed orders.
A stand-out example of Swedish police procedurals
As Dahl notes in his introduction, Sjöwall and Wahlöö introduce humor into their stories. I found little evidence of that in the earlier Martin Beck novels—but not in Murder at the Savoy. It’s here in passages such as “On the whole, the only thing wrong with him was that he had a bullet in his head.” Some of the dialogue, too, is laugh-out-loud funny even in translation. All in all, Murder at the Savoy is a joy for a mystery fan to read and a stand-out example of the Martin Beck series.
About the authors
Maj Sjöwall (1935-2020) wrote the ten Swedish police procedurals of the Martin Beck series together with her partner in life, Per Wahlöö (1926-75). The couple, both Left-wing activists, approached their decade-long project as a means to portray the harsh conditions prevailing in Swedish society in the 1960s and 70s. Both worked as novelists and translators on many other books as well.
For more reading
Check out The best Nordic noir series from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland and Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery by Wendy Lesser (Down the rabbit hole of Nordic noir).
30 outstanding detective series from around the world may also interest you. And I’ve reviewed all five previous novels in the Martin Beck series, beginning with the first, Roseanna (Today’s Scandinavian detective fiction started here).
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For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here.
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