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the fire engine that disappeared

23 december 2020

The Fire Engine That Disappeared, the fifth of the Martin Beck novels, shows us Stockholm in the late 1960s, about to disintegrate from its own indifference and cynicism.

Some Americans think of Scandinavia today as the epitome of a benevolent socialism that we will never reach. In 1969, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö thought of Sweden, at least, as a shabby welfare state in the service of all-corrupting capital:

It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be a socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in among the demonstrators. (151-152)
The Stockholm homicide unit led by Beck, the most engaging team of fictional detectives ever created, are all good people in their way. Even Gunvald Larsson, a terrible person, is a good person in his own way. Ignorant, vacant-minded, and violent, Larsson is still the guy you want underneath you when you are jumping from a burning building, as several characters do in the opening pages of The Fire Engine That Disappeared. And he is the guy you want later on when you are trying to understand why the building caught fire, and why the fire engine that was supposedly on its way never materialized. But as sharply as any detective series, the Beck novels capture the central dilemma of crime fiction: if the sleuths play things by the book, they will never cut through the morass of bad faith and selfishness that characterizes modern society. That sort of solution only obtains in the cozies, the Poirots and the Jessica Fletchers. If you want to bring the bad guys to justice – or bring them somewhere, anyway – you need Gunvald Larsson on your side, breaking a few heads.

The implications are depressing for the good cops on the team. Lennart Kollberg and Martin Beck, the central pair of detectives – best friends, sensitive, intelligent, scrupulous – are worn thin by their whole society's drift toward collapse, and the impossibility of pulling Sweden up by its bureaucratic bootstraps. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who wrote superb action scenes to counterpoint their political rhetoric, inflict the frustrations of the system on their heroes bodily: Larsson, Kollberg, and Beck are all severely injured in the course of the series, though I will avoid spoiling the books by telling you which of them are hurt in this one. But their ordeals confirm their essential goodness. Only cops like the obtuse patrolmen Kristiansson and Kvant, who check out mentally and morally, escape the blows that their work rains down on them.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Fire Engine That Disappeared. Brandbilen som försvann, 1969.] Translated by Joan Tate. 1970. New York: Vintage [Random House], 2007. PT 9876.29 .J63