'Don't you ever read detective stories?'
'I read tons of them. Anything. And forget most of it as soon as I've finished. But that's a classic. A room locked on the inside...'
By the eight book in a series of ten you start to fear that perhaps the initial high standards might have started to wear off. There is that worry that the characters that seemed so fresh at the start are by now hitting the boundaries of the descriptions their authors have written for them.
Those fears are totally understandable but utterly irrelevant with The Locked Room. Far from dipping in terms of quality Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo open the shoulders here and display a confidence about their world and their ability to deliver solid characters as well as well written plots. Martin Beck, the man who after all lends his name to the series, plays second fiddle here.
But what is fresh about the Locked Room is the injection of humour with some passages being almost Tom Sharpe like in the way the police descend into farce trying to catch bank robbers. The chief of police who leads an anti-vietnam march straight into a crowd of football hooligans is just one of the images that lingers.
At the heart are the parallel stories of the bank robbery that opens the book and the discovery of a dead man in a locked room who had suffered a shot to the stomach.
Police incompetence riddles both cases with Beck often expressing exasperation with his colleagues more than with the challenges of tracking down smart criminals. It is the ability to bring in the social and political background that makes the books from Sjowall and Wahloo so different because you are given an insight into a Sweden in the early 1970s, a society that dislikes the police and has political leanings towards the left. The witness who deliberately invents a get-away car does so to hinder the police and aid those he sees as fighting against society.
The other great skill in the Beck series is the way that along with the hard graft of policeman and women like Beck out there on the streets there is the way that luck plays a crucial role. They never overplay it and on the tightrope of keeping the reader believing you are always kept on the right side of falling into disbelief.
Onwards to the last couple in the series.