30 December 2005

The Terrorists, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

(Translated by Joan Tate. Swedish title: Terroristerna)

According to the dust jacket, this is the last in the Martin Beck series, finished only a few weeks before Per Wahlöö's death in 1975.

This novel begins with detective Gunvald Larsson travelling to South America to observe security at a state visit from a foreign diplomat. There is an assassination by bombing during the visit, with grisly circumstances, that is later accredited to a terrorist group known as "ULAG."

Back in Stockholm, Martin Beck, with Larsson and his other hand-picked men, prepare for a similar state visit, fearing that there will be an attempt similar to the South American tragedy.

Beck and his team are opposed by a cool sociopath named Heydt, and three others, including a French electronics expert and two Japanese bomb experts. The terrorists enter the country undetected and prepare to carry out their mission, while the police and national security try to stop them.

Interspersed with this is another plot, the story of Rebecka Lind, a young and single mother living in Stockholm. Although the dust jacket describes this character as a "hippie," I feel that Rebecka is quite a bit more complicated than that stereotype allows for. Her first adventure involves being arrested for robbing a bank. This is -- believe it or not -- a misunderstanding due to her remarkable level of naivete.

Rebecka's desperate struggle to survive and provide a good life for her baby is threaded through and contrasted with the other plot, where all the cleverness that Beck and his team can summon is used to prevent the assassination of an unnamed unpopular Senator from the United States. The father of Rebecka's child is a U.S. citizen who was avoiding the draft by living in Sweden during the Vietnam war. He returns to America on some bad advice, and winds up in prison.

This is a suspenseful yet strangely calm story, with the usual backdrop of bumbling political idiots trying their best to control Beck and his people. Beck is, as usual, doubly challenged to both defeat the terrorists and outwit the foolish maneuverings of his superiors to implement actions that would ensure the failure of his efforts. In the midst of this, he tries more than once to help Rebecka, with whom he has a brief contact when she is tried for bank robbery early in the novel.

The dust jacket says that Sjowall and Wahlöö wanted to write "a series that ...would trace 'a man's personality changing over the years..." That is, they wanted to show how Beck would change as a result of the forces of society and politics around him.

I found it interesting to re-read this novel as well as Cop Killer, having forgotten the exact flavor and content of these works. There are characters and connections from Cop Killer in this book,; it was a pleasant surprise to have selected these two to read out of the series.

It is interesting, 30 years after the writing of these books, to reflect on the weary cynicism expressed herein. Many Americans seem to think that the Scandinavian countries have achieved a sort of Utopia, an ideal mixture of benevolent socialism and democracy. While they surely have solved some problems, one wonders at what cost, and how well. It's an odd place to find inspiration for thinking about social change, socialism, and the welfare state, but I did find it there.

Police are one of the services that most people will agree the government should provide. It may be the vantage point that this allows that prompts the atmosphere for thinking about just what we do expect from our government, and what we're prepared to trade for it.

18 December 2005

Beautiful Ghosts, by Eliot Pattison

This is the fourth novel Eliot Pattison has written about Shan Tao Yun, and the fourth that I have read. The others were (from first to third) The Skull Mantra, Water Touching Stone, and Bone Mountain.

Shan was once a highly-placed Inspector in Beijing. But uncovering the truth about the wrong people caused him to be discredited, removed from office, and thrown into prison in Tibet. In prison he comes to know and love the Tibetan monks sentenced to hard labor lao gai beside him. They impart an understanding of their spirituality, of Buddhism, and encourage him to strengthen his own Taoist practices. Religion is, of course, counter-revolutionary, and punishable by law in the People's Republic.

In each of these novels Shan is presented with a mystery that forces him to use the skills he once employed for his government. Overlaying each plot are the themes of the incredible beauty and spiritual mystery and power of Tibet and the Tibetan people, and their unspeakable oppression at the hands of the Red Chinese government.

In Beautiful Ghosts, Shan comes again into contact with Colonel Tan, the administrator of the county. Tan is once again trying to avoid political trouble with officials from Beijing. This time he is the reluctant host to Director Ming and Inspector Yao, who are searching for lost antiquities. A monk, Surya, is convinced that he has killed a man. As a result Surya casts off his robes and declares himself dead, and eventually takes up a new life among the people who carry night-soil in Lhadrung. Shan's old friends Gendun and Lokesh, illegal monks from the secret monastery of Yerpa, play important roles in this story, as do many other interesting Tibetan, Chinese, and British characters. Indeed, descendants of members of the Younghusband expedition of 1904 figure in this story.

An FBI agent from the USA, Corbett, is also involved, as is a trip to Beijing and the United States.

Again, Pattison has succeeded in writing a terrific police procedural tale, set in beautiful Tibet. He manages to evoke much of the Tibetan Buddhists' plight while celebrating their incredible spiritual strength. The ruggedness of the country and the people who live there left me with a strong impression of my own weakness and addiction to the comforts of life in 21st century America.

If you have not read any of these very entertaining and uplifting books I strongly recommend that you start with The Skull Mantra. Enjoy this rich experience of some of the best mystery writing coupled with fabulous descriptions of this country and its people, insight into the Buddhist religion and philosophy, and terrific character conceptualization and development.

Cop Killer, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

I read some of the "Martin Beck" series several years ago, but I don't remember them well. This book is, as well as I do recall, a good example of the series. I found it throughly enjoyable. The reading list from Donald Knuth cited earlier in this journal reminded me of them, so I took this novel and another, The Terrorists, out of the library.

Cop Killer is a delightful read, and a short one. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were apparently believers in "leave them asking for more".

In it Martin Beck, Chief Inspector for the Swedish National Homicide Squad, is summoned to the little town of Ånderslov, near Malmo because a woman has disappeared. Foul play is suspected, but hasn't yet been confirmed.

As Beck works on this mystery, the incident that gives the book its title occurs in Ljunghausen. A fugitive from the scene of that crime is coincidentally involved in Beck's mystery in Ånderslov, and leads Beck's associate, Lennart Kollberg, to a solution of the original crime.

The book carries a strong flavor of tired cynicism, and despair with the state of society in 1970s Sweden. Many comments are made about the social damage caused by the welfare state, and a general attitude of disgust with the National Police force and its bureaucracy pervades the book.

I expect that the best known novel in this series is The Laughing Policeman, as it was made into a movie. I'll have to read, or re-read, that one as well