The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Abominable Man (Martin Beck #7)The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've come to the conclusion that this series should not be read so much as police procedural mysteries as social studies of Sweden at a particular point in time - the 1960s. So much of the narrative is taken up with the authors' observations about and critiques of the social welfare society that was that country at that time.

The central point and organizational theory of this particular entry in the series is the consequence of police excesses. It presents a police department that has lost the respect of the populace because of the rampant corruption and brutality that has become so much a part of that essential organization.

We are introduced briefly to a police inspector who is known to be exceptionally cruel in his treatment of the policemen under his command and particularly the prisoners who are unfortunate enough to find themselves under his control. Beatings are routine. Ignoring medical needs is a common occurrence.

The result of this indifference to the condition of those locked in cells has its entirely predictable end. People suffer and die. Needlessly.

The brutal police inspector is in the hospital when we meet him. He is seriously ill, but would have recovered his doctor says. He doesn't get the chance. Someone breaks into his room and dispatches him with a bayonet, essentially disemboweling him in the process.

There is no lack of potential suspects, people who would have wished this man dead with good cause. There are citizens who were beaten by the man and his minions. There are those who were merely ill but were arrested because they were suspected of being drunk - epileptics and diabetics, for example, some of whom died in custody. Was it one of their survivors who decided to even the score?

But the dead man was hardly the only one responsible for such brutality. Are other policemen on the kill list of the murderer? Does that list include policemen who knew that the brutality was taking place but did nothing to stop it? Is Martin Beck's name on the list?

Martin Beck and his colleagues comb police records looking for potential suspects. They are overwhelmed by the volume and exhausted by the search. It is true that when a policeman is killed - even a bad policeman like this one - his colleagues spare no effort in finding the perpetrator. The authors note that there are many murders that go unsolved but none of them are murders of policemen. All such crimes end in the perpetrator being brought to justice. Or killed.

Martin Beck's famous instinct tells him that he and other policemen are in danger and, as usual, his instinct is correct. The murderer holes up on the roof of a building from which he can pick off his targets - all of them policemen - one by one, which is just what he proceeds to do. And so we have what has become an iconic event of the 21st century in America - except this is the decade after the middle of the 20th century in Sweden: A mass murderer wielding a rifle.    

In the end, it didn't take any great amount of police work to unmask the killer this time. More important in this case was the explanation of the killer's motive and what sent him over the edge and into insanity. One feels nothing but sympathy for the man.

Shocking as the ending is, it is utterly predictable and the authors lead us to that conclusion step-by-step. I find their method of telling these stories fascinating, particularly the great care they take in describing and setting the scene. One is always able to "see" just what is happening and the environment in which it is happening. Nothing is really left to the imagination. Some readers might find the copious detail somewhat annoying but, to me, it just seems a very clean and clear way of telling a story.

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