1970; 218 pages. New Authors? : No. Book #5 (out of10) of the Martin Beck series. Genre : Crime Mystery; Police Procedural. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
A gas explosion has unleashed an inferno on a small apartment complex (see book cover), with three people perishing in the blaze. Was it an accident? A suicide? A murder? That’s what Martin Beck and his team of detectives want to determine.
The good news is that the police had the building under surveillance at the time of the blast, which helped keep the casualties from being higher and gives Beck a most reliable eyewitness.
The bad news is that an explosion really messes up a crime scene.
What’s To Like...
The Fire Engine That Disappeared is a police procedural, which is probably my favorite subgenre of Crime-Mystery. It’s just over 200 pages long, typical for this series, which means the plotline moves along at a crisp pace. As with any police procedural, there are dead-end leads, fruitless questionings, and investigative red herrings.
The story is set in Stockholm in March of 1968, and you get a nice feel for everyday life in Sweden back then. Ditto for the day-to-day work of a policeman in the 1960’s. Interpol was around, but not e-mail, wireless phones, Google, and the internet.
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo infuse some commentary about the social problems Sweden was coping with in those days, such as suicide (which is not a crime in Sweden) and the ineffectiveness of their Juvenile Reform system. But you also get to bask in some of the national culture – Walpurgis Eve and long summer vacations. I particularly liked the contrast of “big city life” (Stockholm) versus “small city life” (Malmo).
It’s been a while (July 2011) since I’ve read a book from this series, so it was nice to get reacquainted with Beck’s team of detectives. All of them, including Beck, have their character faults; and some of them border on being downright assholes. That gave the characters a realistic feel. There is more sex than I remember in the other two books in the series I’ve read; and the spotlight is now more on the team members, with Beck assuming a mentoring role.
All of the books in this series are standalone novels. You may miss the continuity of Beck’s personal life – his kids growing up and his marriage growing stale. But this doesn’t detract from enjoying each book's storyline.
Kewlest New Word...
Misanthropically (adv.) : In a way marked by a hatred or contempt for humankind. (it’s not really a new word for me. But I think it makes for a kewl adverb)
The man lying dead on the tidily made bed had first taken off his jacket and tie and hung them over the chair by the door. He had then unlaced his shoes, placed them under the chair and stuck his feet into a pair of black leather slippers. He had smoked three filter-tipped cigarettes and stubbed them out in the ashtray on the bedside table. Then he had lain down on his back on the bed and shot himself through the mouth.
That did not look quite so tidy. (loc. 130)
The man picked up the box, lighted his butt, coughed dryly and hoarsely and raised his eyes.
“I’ve killed the missis,” he said.
Benny Skacke stretched out his hand for his notepad and said in a voice which he considered calm and authoritative.
“Oh, yes. Where?”
He wished that Martin Beck or Kollberg had been there.
“On the head.” (loc. 1001)
The Fire Engine That Disappeared sells for $9.99 at Amazon. Eight of the other nine books of the series sell for either $7.99 or $9.99. For some reason, Book 3, The Man on the Balcony, sells for $11.31. Don’t ask me why. If your local library offers a digital book service, you might check there. That's where I got my copy.
“I’ve never been on a case with so many ifs and buts and perhapses and presumablys.” (loc. 4101)
There are a few too many coincidences in The Fire Engine That Disappeared. For example, one of the cops goes to question a witness, and shows up at just the right time to catch him dealing drugs to a schoolgirl user. A Copenhagen detective is given a rather generic description of a woman, and manages to somehow locate her in that huge city almost immediately. Such things weaken the plausibility of the story.
The action is sparse – most of it occurs at the beginning and the very end. The ending seems forced and a bit arbitrary. But the main weakness of the book is the crime itself. Once the dust settles from the explosion and the last flame is put out, what is uncovered is straightforward, predictable, and rather humdrum.
But I quibble. The criminal activity may be ho-hum; but the step-by-step investigation, the intra-team bickering, and the Swedish setting kept me entertained.
7½ Stars. A decent effort, but if you’re new to the series, start with Roseanna (reviewed here).