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the abominable man

25 october 2011

The abominable man in The Abominable Man, we learn soon enough, is actually the murder victim. His killer is abominable enough in turn, but so much wrong is committed in the course of the novel and its backstory that we come to despair of justice. How many wrongs make a right?

Title character Stig Nyman is a veteran of the Swedish army and police force. He has risen to several commands, but never to overall prominence. He is a sadist and a coward (the two qualities are quite compatible). In the name of law and order, he has condoned police brutality for decades, but always managed to avoid responsibility for the harm he's caused.

Nyman himself, despite his title status, appears for only one chapter. He's ill, in incredible pain, and then to make matters worse, someone breaks into his hospital room and butchers him with extreme cruelty. Now, Nyman is pretty much the worst human being you can imagine. He has caused death and pain to hundreds of innocents placed in his power by the apathetic bureaucracies of the police and the military. But does he deserve the vengeance that the narrative wreaks on him?

Homicide cops led by the redoubtable Martin Beck have too many suspects to work with. In good Agatha-Christie fashion, practically everyone who's ever come into contact with Nyman has a motive to murder him. More than usually strung out by lack of sleep and existential inertia, Beck and his men wander in the procedural wilderness.

Then, with a suddenness characteristic of Sjöwall & Wahlöö's novels, which can turn from dishwater to hurricane in an instant, action explodes across the page. The last few chapters are a maelstrom of activity. As so often with Sjöwall & Wahlöö, one is struck by a contrast between highly-charged social and cultural criticism on one page, and pure high-octane pulp adventure on the next. The authors used their thrillers to comment on what they perceived as the collapse of Swedish society. At the same time, they kept them thrilling.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Abominable Man. [Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle, 1971.] Translated by Thomas Teal. New York: Random House, 1972.