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.

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