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Literature / Martin Beck

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Martin Beck, or, alternatively, The Story of a Crime, is a series of 10 Nordic Noir mystery novels by the couple of the Swedish authors and journalists, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, about the exploits of a titular detective, the head of the Special Homicide Commission in the Stockholm Police Department. They are notable for spurring the whole genre, and being one of the first representatives of the new wave of crime and mystery fiction that took the genre from the drawing rooms of the high society into the often dark and gritty world of Police Procedurals filled by realistic culprits and equally believable Defective Detectives.

The series, written almost in real time with its internal timeline between 1965 and 1975, chronicle the progress of titular Martin Beck from a middle-aged, disillusioned, dyspeptic and disappointed with his marriage detective to a still disillusioned (but at least more personally happy) Police Commissioner, who is finally resigned to see the Swedish welfare-state sliding through the dehumanising slippery slope of capitalism to the unpleasant end — both Sjöwall and Wahlöö were staunch Marxists, and conceived the novels as much as a social critique as an entertainment, though the message is weaved in quite subtly, without it becoming Anvilicious.


All of the novels were put to screen at least once, and between 1997 and 2016 34 made-for-TV movies were made, that only used the names of the main characters from the novels. The novels remain one of the finest example of the Nordic Noir, inspiring such followers as Henning Mankell's Wallander series and Stig Larsson's The Millennium Trilogy. They are still very much in print and widely translated into many languages, which, ironically, meant that the one surviving coauthor, Maj Sjöwall,note  has never made money on them, because they still are printed according the original, not very profitable, deal with their publisher.


This series contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Åsa Torell, Åke Stenström's widow, who joins the Beck's team in the later part of the series.
  • Adapted Out: Kollberg in the TV series, despite being Beck's closest friend in the novels.
  • Almost Dead Guy: In "The Laughing Policeman" one of the bus passengers survives for a day or so in the hospital, and lives only long enough to give garbled answers to two questions questions asked by Ronn. "Who did the shooting?" and "What did he look like." The dying man's answers are "Dnrk" and "Koleson." After re-listening to the tape several times, at different speeds, the detectives figure out that he was trying to say "didn't recognize" and "like Oleson", with Oleson being one of his coworkers who bore some resemblance to the killer.
  • Author Tract: Subverted, as the novels indeed were conceived as a social critique, but managed to avoid becoming didactic.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In "The Laughing Policeman" Beck is initially frightened that Kolberg is the policeman who was among those murdered when he calls his house and Kolberg's wife says he's out and she doesn't know where. He is relieved when he runs into Kolberg shortly after arriving at the crime scene.
  • Big Eater: Kollberg, who is repeatedly described as a glutton.
  • The Big Guy: A position jointly held by Beck's closest friend, Lennart Kollberg, a former paratrooper with large stature and supreme shooting skills (though he refuses to carry a gun now), and his second-in-command Gunvald Larsson, an ex-merchant Captain and the strongest guy in the team.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Benny Skacke is introduced as an ambitious, but very hapless newcomer, though he matures quite a bit by The Terrorists.
    • Karl Kristiansson and Kurt Kvant, two equally hapless patrolmen from Skåne, who always screw something up. After Kvant is killed mid-series, his replacement, Kennet Kvastmo, is even worse, because not only he's equally dumb, he's also far more zealous.
  • Consulting A Convicted Criminal: The detectives question Birgersson (a man who killed his wife and is being mentally evaluated) a few time in "The Laughing Policeman" with the knowledge he has being related to some car expertise.
  • Daddy's Girl: Beck's daughter Ingrid, a Wise Beyond Their Years teenager with whom he's actually keeps a close and equal frieendship.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Beck's family life in the first half of the series. He and his wife Inga just barely tolerate each other, and he's thoroughly alienated from his son Rolf. The only close person to him is his daughter Ingrid.
  • Everybody Smokes: But of course — it's a cop series from The '60s, after all. Though Beck at least quits mid-series, on a doctor's orders after he's injured, and because his favorite brand is discontinued.
  • Father Neptune: Played with Larsson in the novels, who is a former sailor and Big Guy of the team, but is actually a scion of a rich family, who rebelled against their staid lifestyle, but still likes his creature comforts pretty much. Larsson of the TV series is a different person altogether.
  • The Fettered: Most of the Homicide Commission, who are all given to doing The Right Thing, at least as they understand it.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Beck and Kollberg.
  • In Name Only: The 1997-2016 series, that only took the names of Beck and Larsson from the novels, and even managed to Adapt Out Lennart Kollberg, despite the latter being the virtual alter-ego of Beck.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: The end of ''The Laughing Policeman" has Beck talking about how their murdered colleague did a good job, but also showed himself to still be green by not leaving behind any records about the man he was investigating in case he got killed. They then get a phone call from another detective who reports that someone -belatedly checked under the dead detectives blotter and found that he did have some notes on the case, including the name of the murderer with a question mark by it.]] This is the incident which causes Beck to have an Everybody Laughs ending, from which the title comes from.
  • It's All About Me: The killer in "The Laughing Policeman". While he does have "unusually much much to lose" the man shows no remorse about killing a lot of innocents just to cover his own tracks and keeps ranting about being entitled to the actions he took, and bitterly blaming the police for the effect it will have on him and his family. Larson, who takes the man's confession, is decidedly unimpressed.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Beck himself, who is already completely disillusioned about the Swedish society by the first novels, but still strives to protect its people.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: Laughing Policeman. The murderer shot his former henchman, the detective and seven bystanders delidberately to throw police off. In addition, the old case being re-investigated is full of false leads, and the detectives find the murderer in the old case files only after the confession. Ironically, he was a respectable businessman who first organized murdering his ex-lover, then covered the tracks — all to protect the well-being of his family.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Type one, as Ingrid is perfectly okay with her father's relationship with Rhea Nielsen, and actually actively encouraged Beck to divorce her mother even before they met. As for Rolf Beck — well, there's little love lost between father and son anyway.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Åke Stenström, a young and ambitious detective who gets killed mid-series in a random spree shooting, starting arguably the best known book of the series, The Laughing Policeman.
  • Those Two Guys: Kristiansson and Kvant/Kvastmo.
  • Toilet Humor: Quite literally — a Running Gag throughout the series is that Fredrik Melander, one of the team's detectives, is always in the loo whenever someone needs him.
  • Wardrobe Wound: Detective Gunvald Larsson.