“The world was evil and flooded with front-page news.” – The Fire Engine That Disappeared, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

December 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I greatly enjoyed this novel by  the legendary Swedish crime writing duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

The home lives of  the cops in these novels are frequently in disarray. Not so that of Melander:

“His wife was a parsimonious, ugly, coarsely built woman, 5 feet 10 inches tall, with flat feet and large pendulous breasts. She was five years younger than he and was called Saga. He thought that she was very beautiful and had thought so for more than twenty-two years.In actual fact, she had not changed much during that time, weighing now, as then, 160 pounds naked and taking size 12 shoes, and her nipples were still small and pink and cylindrical, like a rubber on the end of a new pencil.

Martin Beck’s wife may be better looking, but he does not love her any more, and that makes all the difference. When his beloved daughter Ingrid announces that she’s moving out of the family  home and into a place of her own, she quietly suggests that her father, whose unhappiness is all too evident, consider doing the same.

As this novel opens, an apartment house being watched by the police suddenly and violently explodes into flames. Gunvald Larsson, the detective on duty, is incredibly heroic in his efforts to rescue those trapped in the inferno. If not for his fearlessness, the death toll would have been far greater.

Afterward, police and fire officials examine the charred remains of the building. They find the body of the suspected drug dealer who was the actual subject of the surveillance. But further investigation reveals that the death of this small time hoodlum is merely the tip of the iceberg. This case has a wide reach and becomes increasingly torturous and difficult to unravel.

The procedurals of Sjowall and Wahloo are known for their blunt criticism of a society they deemed riddled with injustice, instability, and decay. The Fire Engine That Disappeared was written 1969, so added to the already volatile mixture of social pathologies was anger over the war in Vietnam.

The police officers in this novel squabble frequently with each other and often seem less than likeable. I was particularly surprised that the aforementioned Gunvald Larsson, whose actions at the scene of the apartment house fire are so thoroughly admirable, comes across at other times as brusque and unsympathetic.

There are actually two fire engines that “disappear” in the course of this novel. One is toy – and one is not…

Kudos to Vintage Crime / Black Lizard for re-issuing the Martin Beck procedurals and commissioning new introductions for each of them. (This particular book is introduced by Colin Dexter. Dexter admits that when asked to perform this task, he had not read a single novel by the Swedish writing duo! This was largely due to his belief that essential aspects of prose style were inevitably ‘lost in translation.’ Of  course, he immediately set out to remedy this omission.) I’m likewise delighted that the Howard County Library has acquired all of the re-issues of this landmark series – sometimes referred to collectively as The Story of a Crime – that have come out thus far. (The final two are due to be published  in July of 2010.)


As I was preparing to write this review, this article was brought to my attention by one of the Usual Suspects. Maj Sjowall has had to live most of her life without the love of her life. She has apparently done so with grace and courage.


  1. Lourdes said,

    Good to know these are being reissued. I’ve always meant to read them. Maybe I should make it my resolution for 2010!

  2. A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] know about. And Joanne reminded us of the ten Martin Beck novels written between 1965 and 1975 by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  This landmark series of  procedurals is reckoned  a  founding work in the pantheon of […]

  3. Stieg Larsson « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] mentions the team of writers whom many consider the founding parents of Scandinavian crime fiction: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Together, these two penned ten novels between 1965 and 1975, before Wahloo’s untimely death. […]

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