The Fire Engine That Disappeared
By Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
“The man lying dead on the tidily made bed had first taken off his jacket and tie and hung them over the chair by the door. He had then unlaced his shoes, placed them under the chair and stuck his feet into a pair of black leather slippers. He had smoked three filter-tipped cigarettes and stubbed them out in the ashtray on the bedside table. Then he had lain down on his back on the bed and shot himself through the mounth. That did not look quite so tidy.”
While on a surveillance assignment Detective Gunvald Larsson is thrust into action when the house he was staking out explodes and a raging fire goes through the building. Larsson rushes to the building to try and save some of the occupants but despite his heroic efforts some have died, including a child and the man he was tracking.
When the coroner concludes that it wasn’t arson it looks like it will be a clear cut case for the team but there are several clues that don’t fit and in particular why was there a note found with Detective Martin Beck’s name on it?
Detective Martin Beck actually isn’t as central to this story as the rest of the police department but if you are a fan of Beck don’t let that stop you from reading the book. On the contrary, I think this just rounds out the cast of characters. The reader gets to know a bit more about the personal lives and aspirations of the other police officers, and just what makes them tick.
What makes this novel a strong police procedural is that it seems very realistic. It takes time for the detectives to come to a conclusion. There are leads that go nowhere, other crimes to solve and frustration grows as there are no quick answers. There isn’t page-turning suspense at every chapter end or paragraph but I imagine that in reality most crimes are solved in slow, methodical steps.
Just as the mystery is crucial to the story, the setting, Sweden in the 60s, plays a big role in explaining the behaviors and attitudes of some of the characters. I found this paragraph an excellent description of the time:
“It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be a socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no one spits on teh American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in among the demonstrators.”
This was a solid mystery with a good mix of police procedural and social content and while I think it’d probably be best read in order to get more of the character development, it stands on its own without leaving the reader in the dark about previous issues.
Source: Personal copy