Jake's Reviews > The Terrorists: A Martin Beck Police Mystery

The Terrorists by Maj Sjöwall
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Mar 02, 12

bookshelves: mystery
Read in January, 2012

** spoiler alert ** "The Terrorists" is the final book in Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck series. It is a valedictory and a summing up, as well as being one of the two best procedurals in the series (the other is "The Laughing Policeman", book 4). The story takes place firmly in the mid-1970s- gone is any vestige of the idealism of the 1960s. Not that much of that 60s spirit reached Martin Beck, who was generally apolitical in his earlier career, and too depressed by his failing marriage to take much part in the free love. Happily, while 1970s Sweden seems to be collapsing in a series of catastrophes around him, Martin experiences a late-in-life awakening, finding both love and some satisfaction in his work. That leaves the reader with a surprisingly feeling of optimism, despite the events of the book.

Those events are uniformly bloody and sad. Two cases intertwine: in the first, a young, naive girl accidentally robs a bank (she had thought "The People's Bank" actually gave loans to the people, and when she went in to ask for some cash, they thought she was robbing the place and had her arrested.) She is freed, but left on her own, with no money and a young child to take care of. Meanwhile, a pornographer who had tried to exploit her is murdered. Martin Beck is assigned the case, while at the same time trying to protect a conservative American Senator from being assassinated during his visit to Sweden. The book begins with Det. Larsson in South America, observing preparations for a similar state visit- it goes horribly awry and the head of visiting Prime Minister ends up in his lap, separated from its body by a large explosion.

Events move very quickly: Beck solves the murder of the pornographer- it turns out he had seduced his gardener's daughter into a life of drugs and dissolution, and in revenge, the gardener had murdered him. Beck's team fails to catch the terrorists as they enter the country, but he is able to stop their assassination by having the State Television stations display the motorcade on a 15 minute tape delay, which causes their explosion to miss. This, however, does not stop Rebecca Lind, the young naif from the bank robbery, from shooting the Swedish prime minister in the head, in revenge for her ill-treatment by the state. She is arrested, tried, and convicted, but not before giving a short speech that fully encapsulates the authors views on modern society:
It's terrible to live in a world where people just tell lies to each other. How can someone who's a scoundrel and traitor be allowed to make decisions for a whole country? Because that's what he was. A rotten traitor. Not that I think that whoever takes his place will be any better- I'm not that stupid. But I'd like to show them, all of them who sit there governing and deciding, that they can't go on cheating people forever.
A few months after she is jailed, she commits suicide. The remaining terrorists are captured (one is killed). The book ends with a famous scene. Martin Beck, with his beloved new girlfriend, are over at his friend Kollberg's place. Kollberg has resigned from the force in the previous book in disgust at the way the police are forced to protect the owners of property at the expense of the people. They are playing a boardgame- perhaps Scrabble, and the book ends with Kollberg's first move: ""Then I say 'X'- 'X' as in Marx."

This is taken by many as the closest the authors come to making an actual policy recommendation, but to a longtime reader of the series, it seems like a red-herring. Sjowall and Wahloo are fundamentally humanists, not Communists- they distrust all large institutions, including big businesses and state controlled police forces. Their main character, Martin Beck, has never shown any interest in politics, but throughout the series he has shown the deepest sense of compassion for the victims of the crimes he solves, and a deep sense of camaraderie with his fellow officers. He is stolidly middle class in his aspirations and morality, and one gets the sense that the authors believe that if everyone would just act more like him, the world would be a much less horrible place.
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