Cover image of "The Locked Room," a Swedish police procedural

Michael Connolly writes in his introduction to the Kindle edition of this novel that “The Martin Beck books tell us so much more than just how a crime is solved. . . [T]hey tell us how a crime happens and how a city, country, and society can often be complicit. They take us beneath the surface. They tell it like it is.” And that is certainly true of The Locked Room. In fact, of all the eight novels I’ve read so far in the series, this book most boldly lays bare the authors’ leftist perspective on Swedish society. The Locked Room advances the continuing story of Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Homicide Squad. But throughout the book is a running commentary on the incompetence and unpopularity of the Swedish police, the deficiencies of Sweden’s welfare state, and the sad consequences of capitalism.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

A Marxist view of Swedish society

For example, here are Sjöwall and Wahlöö describing the motivation of two career criminals. “Big-time criminals profit from everything—from poisoning nature and whole populations and then pretending to repair their ravages by inappropriate medicines; from purposely turning whole districts of cities into slums in order to pull them down and then rebuild others in their place. The new slums, of course, turn out to be far more deleterious to people’s health than the old ones had been. But above all they don’t get caught.” There’s truth at the core of this diatribe. But it’s far over the top.

Later, Martin Beck muses “that the law has been designed to protect certain social classes and their dubious interests, and otherwise seems mostly to consist of loopholes.” The Marxist influence could hardly be clearer.

The Locked Room (Martin Beck #8 of 10) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1972) 338 pages ★★★★☆

Image of contemporary Swedish police officers
Today, the Swedish police are a thoroughly professional organization indistinguishable from police forces in other advanced countries. In 1972, when this novel was published, the quality and effectiveness of police in Stockholm were highly uneven and the force was deeply unpopular.

The police come off badly

  • The National Police Commissioner is, apparently, a politician without prior policing experience. He’s concerned, above all, with secrecy. “Don’t let anything get out,” he admonishes at every turn. And he has good reason to fear exposure. Like New York during the same era, Stockholm is in the grips of a crime wave—and the police have proven unable to do anything about it.
  • Although the force is severely underfunded, the National Homicide Squad does better than most. But its budget is far outstripped by the security police, a rabidly anti-Communist outfit that follows leads from fascist organizations to pursue suspected leftists and ignores violent action on the Right. (This is historically consistent with the pro-Nazi stance of the Swedish police and security services in World War II.)
  • The district attorney is obsessed with bank robberies, of which there have been many in recent years. Two of Martin Beck’s closest colleagues are detailed to his special squad to pursue a gang of bank robbers who have eluded the DA for years. They end up stumbling into a bungled operation that’s reminiscent of a Keystone Cops episode.
  • The police are so unpopular that the force has great difficulty recruiting new officers. Now anyone, including the “retarded,” can gain access to a badge. And the proof of this comment by an embittered officer is in one of the members of the DA’s special squad who appears to have an IQ of about 60.

Now about that “locked room” mystery

In this novel, as in all the previous entries in the series, the men of the National Homicide Squad are involved in two different investigations. Two of them pursue the bank robbers on assignment to the DA’s office. Martin Beck goes solo on the other.

Martin Beck has been on leave for months, recuperating from a gunshot wound to his chest. To ease his way back into the force, his superiors assign him a seemingly unsolvable case that has gone cold. (It’s a way to keep him busy without getting back into the action.) A retired dockworker, essentially barricaded in his rented room, has died of a gunshot wound. The investigating officer, who is notoriously incompetent, has concluded the man killed himself—even though there is neither a gun nor a spent cartridge in sight. Spending weeks of patient investigation into the case, Martin Beck does solve it at length. But prepare yourself for an ironic surprise. In the end, it’s all very, very funny.

An awkward translation?

Unlike the previous novels in the Martin Beck series, The Locked Room reads as though one of the two coauthors did most of the writing—the more doctrinaire of the couple. That seems apparent not only from the numerous passages lamenting the sorry condition of Swedish society and the incompetence of the Swedish police but from the dialog as well. Many of the conversations come across as awkward, something I hadn’t noticed in the pair’s earlier work. Now, perhaps the translator was at fault. A number of different translators worked on this series, and the man who translated The Locked Room was not responsible for any of the other books.

I’ve reviewed all seven previous Martin Beck mysteries. You can access them by typing that name into the search field in the upper right-hand corner of the Home Page.

And check out Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery by Wendy Lesser (Down the rabbit hole of Nordic noir) and 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. And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.