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cop killer

19 february 2012

I don't know if the Swedish Polismördaren has the same ambiguous senses as the English "Cop Killer." But that English title of Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö's ninth Martin Beck mystery had me worried throughout. What if, instead of a killer of cops, a cop turned out to be killer?

As it happens, neither one figures in the book's denouement. And for a long time, the title subplot doesn't even appear, adding haze to the plot's foggy layers. The novel starts with a woman being adbucted and murdered. We don't know who did it (naturally), but there are two prime suspects: the woman's alcoholic, abusive ex-husband, and her next-door neighbor – who happens to be the paroled, sex-crazed killer from the first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna.

The murder occurs in the far south of Sweden, in territory that would later become familiar to readers of Henning Mankell: the rolling plains and drizzly atmosphere of Skåne. Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg, though they're based in Stockholm, are key national homicide detectives, so they're sent to Skåne to bring the killer back alive. The only problem is which of the embarrassingly obvious suspects to collar. The investigation is a mess of false starts, blind alleys, and desultory police work: it is a wonder that Sjöwall & Wahlöö always managed to keep such slow plots so riveting, or to instill in us so much trust for such plodding detectives. But better than most procedurals, the Sjöwall / Wahlöö mysteries convey a sense of real lives and real-time desperation and panic. Nothing is every solved easily in a Martin Beck novel, though much can be solved in a tumbling rush through various accidents.

Meanwhile, fairly late in the game, a cop is killed, or sort of, and a copkiller (sort of) is sort of on the loose. Nothing is ever straightforward in these novels, either; there are more nuances in a chapter or two of Cop Killer than in an entire season of Law and Order.

By 1974, Sjöwall and Wahlöö had become hilariously cynical about the condition of Sweden. Everything is falling apart; the falconer isn't even bothering to call the falcon anymore. Yet within their ludicrous dystopia, Beck and Kollberg (and their new southern pal, Herrgott Allwright) stand out by virtue of their easygoing integrity – an integrity all the more enjoyable because it is marked by a fair amount of selfishness and insouciance. They don't take their bizarre fictional setting any more solemnly than it deserves, and they are therefore among the most likable characters in all of police fiction.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. Cop Killer: The story of a crime. [Polismördaren, 1974.] Translated by Thomas Teal. New York: Pantheon [Random House], 1975.