The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Shane's book 33, 2008)

I was a little disappointed with this, the fifth in the Martin Beck series. It’s not that it’s a poor book by any means but it doesn’t reach the heights of the previous two novels, The Man on the Balcony and The Laughing Policeman. Even the supporting material in the book is a letdown after what’s gone before. Earlier books in the series have begun with insightful introductions from other writers, whose love for the series is obvious, and closed with excerpts from an interview with Maj Sjowall. This book is introduced by Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse series, who admits that he hadn’t read any of the books until he was asked to write the introduction, while the bulk of the postscript is taken up with lists of other books and authors you may like if you liked this one.

[amtap book:isbn=0007242956]

The book itself concerns an explosion at a Stockholm apartment building. Present is Gunvald Larsson, a detective from Martin Beck’s team, who is able to rescue many of the building’s tenants. Police had one of the building’s occupants under surveillance and the investigation centres on him. Did he inadvertently blow up the building during a suicide attempt or was he murdered by a bomb? And what’s the significance of a note found beside a suicide in another part of town, a note that reads just “Martin Beck”?

Unfortunately, none of this proves very significant. No real mystery develops around the investigation and there’s no particular search for a criminal behind it all. Perhaps it was just me but the investigation felt like a longwinded confirmation of the obvious. This would have worked if Sjowall and Wahloo were trying to make a point about the frequent banality of police work but I’m not sure they were. The story reaches an unconvincing climax that feels forced. However, the potentially cliched conclusion is rescued by the authors’ typical cynicism and wit.

In the Martin Beck series the mystery is just an excuse for the typically sharp character portraits and observations about Swedish society. In this respect the stars of the book are Larsson and Sten Lennart Kollberg. The irascible policemen have little time for anyone but particularly dislike each other. Kollberg memorably describes Larsson as “the stupidest detective in the history of criminal investigation”.

In another marvellous scene, Larsson returns to the office after the fire and is rude and erratic. His colleagues are so used to his misanthropy that they fail to realise that his behaviour is the result of concussion.