Way back in July 2010, when How Mysterious! was in its infancy, I read the first Martin Beck mystery, Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and now here I am at the end. The Terrorists is the last in the 10-book series, published in 1975, and like the others it contains both a good mystery and some biting commentary on Swedish (and, in this case, global) culture.
As the book opens, National Commissioner of Police Martin Beck is attending the trial of a young woman who robbed a bank. It’s an open and shut case, because she doesn’t deny that she walked in, asked for money, and walked out. But her defense counsel soon shreds the prosecution, in part though the testimony of Martin Beck, and the young woman walks free. “Neither school, nor her own parents, nor the older generation in general have on the whole offered her support or encouragement. That she has not bothered to involve herself in the present system of rule cannot be blamed on her,” he tells the court.
It’s an important theme, and it along with Rebecka Lind will reappear in the book.
The main storyline focuses on ULAG, a new terrorist group that’s been assassinating political leaders around the world. With the impending visit from a famous American senator to Sweden, the whole country’s security forces are on high alert, and Martin Beck is tapped to oversee the motorcade trip from the airport to a wreath-laying ceremony in town. He gathers his team, whom we’ve gotten to know in the previous 9 books, and they pinpoint the most dangerous areas for the journey, creating a plan to thwart the terrorists.
When, just before the big moment arrives, they realize that at least one of the terrorists has made it into the country, they have to go forward anyway and hope their plans are good enough.
The unnamed American senator, clearly Barry Goldwater or a very close facsimile, provides some of the laughs that appear in every Sjöwall and Wahlöö book, as when the “tall, sunburned man with a winning smile and sparkling white teeth” raises his hat and “waved gaily at the demonstrators and policemen” despite the banners that proclaim “Yankee Go Home” and “Motherfucking Murderer.” If you’re like me you’ll be glad that when forced to shake his hand, Gunvald Larsson gripped the senator so hard that it made his hand hurt.
In the end Lennart Kollberg summarizes the series’ social commentary when he complains about the nationalization of the police force. “Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last ten years. You can’t stop or steer that avalanche on your own,” he tells Beck. “It just increases. That’s not your fault.” We’ve sunk to bad times when not even Martin Beck can save the day.