Roseanna

Published in Sweden in 1965, Roseanna is the first book by authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in their Martin Beck series.  The plot is simple: The body of young American Roseanna McGraw is pulled out of a canal during a dredging. An aloof librarian from Nebraska by day, Roseanna was vacationing in Sweden on a cruise. Detective Martin Beck, with help from a pair of noteworthy colleagues, sets about to find the murderer.  Over the course of the novel, the detectives trace a series of people and photographs to find the killer before setting a trap to ensnare the suspect.

The plot is, perhaps, the least interesting part of this sparsely written book. The detectives set about with a single minded linearity to their mission. They follow clues precisely and mundanely in tracking down people and evidence. The final trap used to capture the suspect is straightforward but effective. The storyline is so simplistic that it can detract from an enjoyable, but stunted, set of characters.

Martin Beck is the lead detective on the case.  He is melancholy, dispassionate about everything except his work, a more than casual smoker and one of the finest detectives in Sweden. Readers are given repeated glimpses into his thoughts about a now loveless marriage with children that Beck barely acknowledges.  He is dogged in his work and, once the case of Roseanna McGraw is set before him, unable to separate himself from the case even when off duty.

Beck has two detectives as colleagues: Lennart Kollberg and Fredrik Melander.  Kollberg gets a richer and more thorough character development from the authors.  If there is humor to be found in Roseanna, Kollberg provides.  He is often incisive and sarcastic with his comments. Described as jovial and indolent, he is nonetheless an excellent detective.  Having an eidetic, or something closely akin, memory, Melandar is eccentric in his tastes and seemingly absent whenever sought after.

Beyond the three main characters, Sjowall and Wahloo create a few side characters that help with the sometimes plodding pace of the plot.  Roseanna McGraw’s former roommate provides a colorful chapter that more fully fleshes out the victim while being a brisk read. Later in the novel, policewoman Sonja Hansson introduces a blunt, confident female voice to an otherwise male dominated cast of characters.

The killer, despite not being identified until the last quarter of the novel, is a fascinating creation that should leave any reader discomforted.  The disaffected nature that the killer initially displays is frightening when the full extent of their crimes and deeds are discussed.  Whether this is a realistic portrayal of a murderer is inconsequential to the disturbing fictional possibility it presents.

While the plot is basic and the characters are interesting but somewhat flat, the prose is the most likely culprit to ruin this novel for a reader. It’s difficult to tell how much the translation disrupts the flow but the book reads in a disjointed fashion.  There is little in the way of descriptors or nuanced language. The book reads as one might imagine a police report: bereft of unnecessary details.  The dialogue is direct and short.  A purpose, however, is served by the nature of the prose.  It conveys the frustration of the investigation when it stalls and the excessive mundanity of the process.  Martin Beck does not possess powers of intellect beyond a normal person.  His colleagues are equally believable as ordinary detectives in both actions and descriptions. Sjowall and Wahloo write in a fashion that is both dense and brief at the same time rarely wasting a word.

Overall, I found the book to be enjoyable but starkly different anything I’d read previously. The authors do not offer a twist to the plot.  There is no secret clue left undiscovered until the last instant. While it is difficult to find Martin Beck a likable character, he has admirable traits.  The pacing of the rather short book is painfully slow in the middle third as the detectives find their investigation stalled. The final third is a much brisker read and a satisfying ending helps to cover some of the earlier shortcomings of the novel.  There is enough to like in the first novel to convince me that the second novel in the series, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, is worth reading.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

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