The Fire Engine that Disappeared

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The Fire Engine That Disappeared  By Per Wahloo, By Major Maj SjowallOne cold winter’s night police detective Gunvald Larsson temporarily covers for a junior officer charged with keeping a watch on the house of a suspect. While he is on shift there is an explosion and Larsson becomes a hero, rescuing several people from the burning house. The suspect is not one of the survivors; initial reports suggest that he was dead before the explosion, probably suicide and it is also believed that the method of his suicide later caused the explosion. The case is quickly closed but Larsson, on sick leave after being slightly injured in the fire, quietly sets out on his own investigation, refusing to believe that the answer is so simple. His doubts are confirmed when the body of a “business associate” of the dead man, both known to be involved in car thefts, is recovered from the docks and the case has to be re-opened.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared” is the fifth novel in the ten book series featuring Martin Beck. It is the first I have read and I must admit to not having heard of the series at all before I stumbled on this book by chance. I’ve become a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction of late and had been looking for new authors to try when I noticed the authors’ names on the book’s spine.

I’ve learned, though, that the married couple, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, who wrote the books are considered, within the crime fiction genre, to have been quite ground-breaking, essentially paving the way for authors such as Henning Mankell, whose name is probably the first one most crime fiction readers think of in relation to Scandinavia.

“…but what I liked best was the window into Swedish life and culture during the 1960s.”

The Fire Engine That Disappeared” is a police procedural of the highest quality. Written (and set) in the 1960s, it comes from a time when it was mainly footwork and brain power that solved crimes. There is a minor element of forensics, but it’s quite notable how little the experts were able to gain from the evidence available; these days the techs would manage to extract a lot more from what they had. This type of plot is perfect for the armchair sleuth who, after all, doesn’t have all the tools of science available to come up with a theory.

I thought it odd that Martin Beck is not the main character despite of getting a name check in the series title. In this novel the central character is the outwardly rather gruff and boorish, but privately more cultured and urbane, Gunvald Larsson. Although it’s obvious that the main police characters have established histories that refer to previous books in the series, I liked the character development within this novel and I didn’t feel at a disadvantage for coming to the series partway through; on the contrary, I liked what I read so much that I wanted to go back and start at the beginning.

So the plot is nicely constructed and engaging and the characters are the sort of people that one might want to spend more time with, but what I liked best was the window into Swedish life and culture during the 1960s. This comes across partly through the attitudes of the police officers but also in the accounts of the family lives of the same characters. The sense of place and time is worked seamlessly into the story and the authors don’t have to try too hard to knit in cultural references. That said, it’s to the authors’ credit that the novel doesn’t feel dated.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared” is a well constructed and thought-provoking novel that has introduced me to a writing double-act I wish to read more from. I consider myself enlightened and tempted.

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Fire Engine that Disappeared (The)
by Per Wahlöö, Maj Sjöwall

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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