The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Terrorists (The Martin Beck)The Terrorists by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am in mourning. I've just finished the last of the Martin Beck mysteries. There will be no more regular visits with Beck and his doughty but quirky band of Swedish policemen as they battle to rid their society of the evil that afflicts it.

It seems fitting somehow that this last book featured terrorism as its theme, since terrorism has become such an expected part of our lives in the twenty-first century. This book was published in 1975 but it seems as fresh as today's news. Indeed, all ten of the books in this series, starting with Roseanna in 1965, seem current and not at all dated in their outlook. They seem very relevant for the times in which we live.

The Terrorists begins and ends with acts of terrorism - the first in an unnamed Latin American country and the second in Stockholm. These acts are committed by a very well organized international terrorist organization for which terrorism is a business. But Sjowall/Wahloo seem to be exploring a much wider definition of terrorism including that which is perpetrated by the bureaucratic apparatus of the state which is always portrayed as a hapless, insensitive, incompetent villain in these books. The writers were always looking at the wider cultural issues that plagued Swedish society during the time about which they were writing and that, in fact, continue to plague Western societies today. That wider cultural focus is, I think, why these stories remain so fresh while some others from the same period seem hopelessly dated.

At the beginning of The Terrorists Gunwald Larsson is sent to that unnamed South American country as an observer of the security measures taken for a state event. As an observer, he is present when a bomb explodes, killing the president of the country as well as several other people. What he has learned from the experience, primarily, is that the terrorists are very skilled at their jobs.

Back in Stockholm, we meet a young teenage mother who is caught in the coils of red tape produced by that aforementioned incompetent bureaucratic apparatus. She responds by attempting to borrow some money from a bank. Her actions are misinterpreted and she is arrested for bank robbery. The gears of the bureaucracy continue to grind her up.

Then a millionaire pornography filmmaker is murdered and the search is on for his killer. That particular crime is cleared up in fairly short order when a confession is secured, but during all of this, while investigating the everyday crimes of Stockholm, the police must also prepare themselves for the upcoming state visit by a very unpopular United States senator. An act of terrorism is expected, perhaps an attempt to assassinate the man, and Martin Beck is put in charge of the security detail which must try to prevent that from happening.

He assembles his team which includes most of the names that we are familiar with from the previous nine books and they put a plan in place. It's never clear right up until the event itself whether that plan will actually work, but, throughout, the narrative is rendered in crisp and elegant prose and the pace is brisk. The reader is never bored.

As we say a sad farewell to Martin Beck, at least we are leaving him in a far better place than we found him. When we first met him, he was dyspeptic and morose, constantly battling an oncoming cold, and trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman who didn't appreciate him. Finally, after several books, he extricated himself from that marriage and since then, he has been happier and has been building a life that better suits him. He has found a woman, Rhea, whom he loves and who loves him and who makes him very happy. The only fly in his ointment seems to be the job, even though he is very good at it.

In the conclusion of the book, his friend, Lennart Kollberg, who has resigned from the police tells Martin Beck that he has "the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system." That is the Sjowall/Wahloo indictment of that "system" which they obviously felt soiled everything that it touched. These books have a point of view and the reader is never in doubt as to what that is.

One further note: One of the many pleasures of the editions of the books that I have been reading has been their introductions penned by present-day crime fiction writers. Those essays in themselves could stand alone and they have been a treat to read. This last one was introduced by Dennis Lehane and it is a worthy member of that collection.        

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