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the terrorists

5 march 2012

The Terrorists is the last of the ten Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and though it's now 36 years since Wahlöö's death brought a sudden and premature end to the series, one still has to look back on that event with regret and longing. If the ten Sjöwall / Wahlöö novels aren't the apex of world detective fiction, they're at least on the upper slopes, and it's hard to think of a concentrated body of work that rises above them.

Spoilers are below; it's hard to discuss this novel without them.

The Terrorists contains three loosely but ingeniously linked stories. In one, a young woman who has fallen out of the grid of the 1970s Swedish welfare state becomes an impromptu assassin. (She assassinates a Prime Minister who, though unnamed, would have been, at the time, Olof Palme; in one of the weirder and longer-delayed echoes of art that life has come up with, Palme would in fact be assassinated years later, though under circumstances very unlike those in The Terrorists.) In the second, the title characters, whose motives are very murky, but align with Sjöwall and Wahlöö's arch pessimism, plan to assassinate an American Senator (who resembles Barry Goldwater), but are foiled by Martin Beck and his team. And in a third, a porn producer is murdered by the father of a woman he's corrupted. The points of contact among the three plots are tangential, but themes cross from one to another – the overarching theme, as always, that Sweden is going to hell because nobody cares.

Perhaps nobody did care in the 1970s. I lived through them in somewhat of a distasteful blur. (I was in highschool and college, which can be distasteful blurs in any decade.) American cities decayed rapidly in the '70s; American social services, infrastructure, traditional retail businesses, industries, and public institutions appeared to come apart at the seams. Morale was low; public works obeyed drab, inhuman stylistic influences from Eastern Europe. I always associated this "malaise" with the aftermath of integration in this country, figuring that white folks who couldn't rule anymore preferred to see things go to hell than to share them with the black folks who had helped build so much of them. Yet the same malaise captured countries with dissimilar social histories, as in Britain and Scandinavia. What was wrong with the global drinking water?

Things are better now, but the 1970s aesthetic lives on in an outstanding body of gritty crime fiction, on paper and film alike. Sjöwall and Wahlöö are at the heart of 1970s noir – our lasting compensation for a truly unpleasant decade.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Terrorists. [Terroristerna, 1975.] Translated by Joan Tate. New York: Pantheon [Random House], 1976.