Friday, March 14, 2014

Favorite mysteries?

This is only the beginning of a discussion of mysteries because - duh - there are so many good mystery writers out there.  Ruth Rendell and P. D. James and Ian Rankin and Denise Mina and I've mentioned Imogen Robertson before, who writes beautiful historical mysteries set in the late 1700s.  And what about American writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Donald Westlake and Michael Connelly and James Ellroy... sorry, got carried away.

I read a lot of Nordic mysteries (Nordic Noir, you might say).  I thought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was just okay and there are Nordic writers I enjoy much better, like Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser.  But my favorite of favorites - Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote police procedurals centering on Martin Beck, a detective in Stockholm.   From the book jacket of their last book:  "Together they planned a series, to consist of ten books, which they said would trace 'a man's [Martin Beck's] personality changing over the years, as the milieu and the atmosphere, the political climate, the economic climate, and the crime rate change...'"

The first book, Roseanna, was written in 1965.  The last book, The Terrorists, in 1975, the same year  Per Wahlöö passed away.

What makes these books so special?  The prose is sparse and clean.  And these aren't books about overly grisly serial killings or the intricacies of forensic science.  They follow a group of policemen, regular people doing their jobs.  Martin Beck feels like your grumpy neighbor - your grumpy neighbor you'd turn to instantly if you needed a great policeman.  He's middle-aged, slightly flawed, but human.  And all the characters in the books are human - they might have their quirks, but the quirks come from a real place.  Through the ten books you get to know the characters, see how they change, and in a way, fall in love with them.  

Excellent mysteries, excellent characters, and a fascinating look at life, culture, and crime-solving in Sweden.  Every few years I get out the books and read them again.  I start with Roseanna and read straight through to The Terrorists.  I would recommend reading them in order.  The photo below shows where they live.  On the highest place of honor in the mystery section of my bookshelf.

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