No. 8 in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, The Locked Room, is my least favorite so far.
Perhaps it’s my fault for having high expectations about what Sjöwall and Wahlöö would do with a locked room mystery, or perhaps their social commentary is just too overwhelming in this one. Either way, I more or less had to make myself finish it just because I’m not going to miss a word of this classic Swedish series.
Oddly, my review of #7, The Abominable Man, specifically complimented Sjöwall and Wahlöö on not being too heavy-handed with the social commentary, but this time I think it does go too far. Half of the plot, which concerns a series of bank robberies, does nothing but point to the incompetence of the police, from inability to stop a crime wave, complete with a Keystone Cops-worthy attempt to capture two thieves who weren’t at home, to a purely vicious on peaceful demonstrators who can’t be allowed to disturb the peace at the American embassy. You really can’t even blame the citizen who lied to police about one of the bank robberies specifically because he’s kind of glad someone stuck one to the man.
The other half of the plot is much more enjoyable. It focuses on the locked room mystery of the title. Recovering from the previous book’s denouement, Martin Beck is handed another case entirely botched by the police in its earliest stages. An old man’s body was discovered in his quadruple-bolted apartment, windows latched and heater blasting, some weeks after he apparently committed suicide. Because everyone assumed it was a suicide, no one investigated closely until someone finally noticed there was no weapon in the room.
Beck’s physical recovery is going well, but mentally he remains off balance. It’s not that he’s jittery or angry, as you’d expect with a potentially PTSD-inducing experience; rather, he just doesn’t care about anything at all. He doesn’t care what he eats or who he sees, or even if he solves the mystery — it’s more an intellectual challenge than anything else. It’s more disturbing to read about this flat, unemotional man than the old depressed and bitter Beck.
But have no fear, that all changes when he meets Rhea Nielsen, formerly the landlord to the locked room victim, who throws him completely off balance. When Martin Beck laughs, even she recognizes it’s not something he usually does, at least not to signify that he’s happy. Is it possible that his personal life could become as successful as his professional life? I’ve only got two books left, but I hope it could be so.