Saturday, January 08, 2011

Bread, butter and crime

Or margarine rather than butter, to be frank. My recent post about Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Man on the Balcony singled out a meditation on the disappearance of small bakeries as a symptom of social decay.

That was the third novel in the ten-book Martin Beck series. Here's how the second novel, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, opens:
"The room was small and shabby. There were no curtains and the view outside consisted of a gray fire wall, a few rusty armatures and faded advertisement for margarine."
A grim slice of urban color? Yes, but perhaps more, as well. Back when the novel first appeared, in 1966, margarine was — at least where I came from — a weirdly artificial creation, a chemical intrusion of a ghastly white color that came in small tubs with an orange pill one could dissolve in the margarine to impart what the makers hoped was something closer to butter's natural color. So margarine could function easily as a sign of social decay, of the industrial and the chemical replacing the natural.

One need not read the passage that way, of course. (To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a greasy tub of bread lubricant is nothing more than that.) That the passage could function equally well as description and as social criticism, though, is one more sign of how good Sjöwall and Wahlöö were.
***
My copy is part of the excellent reissue of the entire series by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, each volume of which includes an appreciation by a noted current crime writer.

I was chuffed to find in Val McDermid's discussion of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke some of the same points raised here apropos The Man on the Balcony: that Beck was no maverick, rules-defying hero; that he functioned as part of a team; that he was no genius and possessed no extraordinary powers. McDermid also praises Sjöwall and Wahlöö's skill as plotters, a quality especially apparent to me in the first Beck novel, Roseanna.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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22 Comments:

Blogger Margot Kinberg said...

Peter - Interesting point about the value of that description as either social criticism or, well, just a description. Either way, I greed with you, and with McDermid that Beck is a actually a great detective because he's not a genius, a maverick, a head-buster, etc.. Rather, he's a normal human being who's passionate about solving crimes. I like him all the better for it.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, and I guess I'm dating myself with my memories of white margarine (I was quite young at the time, still in short pants.)

I presume you've read the Beck books. Even if you have, the new editions are worth seeking out for the introductions. Henning Mankell wrote the introduction for "Roseanna" and Jo Nesbo for "The Man on the Balcony." At least one of the other introducers had not previously read Sjowall and Wahloo, so Black Lizard apparently made a real effort to solicit a wide variety.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think the orange pill might have been a Canadian thing. Margerine was big when I was a kid too, but it looked pretty much like butter, although maybe a little bit brighter in hue...

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Maybe Canada was a bit behind the U.S. in such matters. Not all margarine was white in my youth. I probably joined the Canadian spread-consuming public right when margarine artists were moving to a more naturalistic style in their depiction of butter.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Beck is smart though. He can put all of the pieces together in the jigsaw puzzle, and figure out the solution.

And he thinks of new possible clues, suspects and threads to the investigation, while working with colleagues.

No genius, but he is a cut above the average investigator. And he is a thinker through whom the reader imbibes Sjowall/Wahloo's ideas.

"The Locked Room" has a very complicated plot with several suspects and crimes, but Beck does figure it all out.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'm going to try to read the series in order. I once said I would be interested to see what Sjowall and Wahloo would do with a title liked "Locked Room." For that matter, I should look up the novel's Swedish title and find out whether it related to what we know in English as a locked-room mystery.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Oy vey I say in response.

Sjowall and Wahloo's "Locked-Room" mystery is so complicated that a reader almost has to do a chart, and there are crimes galore.

It's lots of fun though. The authors, I believe, spent hours and days thinking of possible locked-room solutions, and theirs is a stunner.

Hope you get to it soon.

For Beck to have figured this out took quite a mind.

Chock full of red herrings, criminals, bank heists, shootings, lots of fun. The reader could not figure out this solution.

January 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The Locked Room" is eighth in the series, and I'm only on Book Two after having read Books One and Three first, so it may be a while yet. I remember being surprised that such politically minded writers could take on a traditional form such as a locked-room mystery, and I wanted to see what they did with it.

January 08, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, it's quite a stunning solution to the locked-room mystery.

It would be a challenge even to the locked-room mystery role model, John Dickson Carr, a favorite with my family years ago, especially those who were math puzzle solvers.

And it's all mixed in with several plot strands going on at once.

In other words, it's fun...definitely a book to look forward to.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As in previous comments and posts, I'm impressed that such a politically committed pair of writers could have apparently successful fun with a traditional mystery form. I will look forward to the book.

Some readers have noticed that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo uses something like a locked-room plot, but I think even the book's fans would not consider this the novel's high point.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I have to think about a "locked-room" plot in TGWTDT. It's a little more elaborate than that. I'm not sure about that comparison.

I'd say it's more of a Poirot-type situation, with a closed community of suspects set on a location with no access or exit, however, maybe the allusion is to another part of the plot.

This I'll have to check.

Am rewatching "Dark Passages," with Bogart and Bacall, a good drama with a mystery component...nothing like some of these classics.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It has elements of both, doesn't it: a closed community of suspects, and an escape that seems impossible. But again, it's probably academic, since no one considers the mystery the novel's high point.

I ought to see "Dark Passage" and read the book on which it was based. The author was Philadelphia's own David Goodis, and today (Sunday) is an annual graveside memorial for him followed by a gathering in his memory. I won't be there this year, but I did attend two years ago.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes. It does have both a closed community of suspects and a seemingly impossible exit. But, as you say, it's not the book's main point.

I saw David Goodis' name in the credits for the movie. It is a good film.

That ends my viewing (or reviewing) of the four Bogart/Bacall films, which I started last year. Now I'm going to watch or rewatch all of the Bogart films the library has in stock this year.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Sorry to be finished with "The Thin Man," but what a good read. It should be touted much more than it is at mystery websites.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I've read all of the Sjowall and Wahloo books, some of them twice, over the years. The locked room mystery was pretty much John Dickson Carr's thing, so maybe the time has something to do with that. The closed circle of suspects is also an older form of mystery. Both belong into the puzzle category, something I don't really relate to much any longer. I will admit, though, that I,too, have used a locked room story. Still feel a little ambivalent about that.
For me, such plot devices are less important than the other qualities of the novels, which tend to be far more realistic. And that includes the margarine. :)

January 09, 2011  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Loved this series. Someone just gave me THE TERRORISTS for my birthday, which I don't remember reading.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, if my memory serves me well, a commenter on this blog posted a complimentary statement of Raymond Chandler's to the effect that Allan Ladd was all right, but Bogart was the genuine article. I was impressed because the commenter, Elisabeth, prefers Robert Mitchum to Bogart and insists that a young Mitchum would have made the perfect Philip Marlowe on screen. This is by way of saying that you have some good viewing ahead of you, at least until you get to Sabrina, which, whatever virtues it may have, Bogart's performance is not one of them.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, after reading Hammett's "Glass Key," "Red Harvest," the Continental Op stories and "The Maltese Falcon," I need to decompress and read something else before I can adjust to "The Thin Man"'s lighter tone.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Sure, the more realistic qualities are more important in Sjowall and Wahloo's books, which makes their choice of older, puzzle conventions all the more intriguing. I'll be eager to see to what extent they use the locked-room convention and how well they pull it off.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, a comment I read this week revealed the final words in "The Terrorists." Assuming the report was accurate, the words were not promising. But you know what? Sjowall and Wahloo are so good that I'll cut them lots of slack and read the book anyhow.

Happy Birthday.

January 09, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Don't know what the final words were in "The Terrorist."

But it sounds even more compelling to read.

I have "Roseanna" on hold at the library, and perhaps I'll read the Sjowall/Wahloo books in order, skipping those I've read.

So I may read the Continental Op next in my Hammett readings.

I did see "Sabrina," and thought Bogart was terribly miscast. He looked miserable in that movie. The ending, which features a reunite with Audrey Hepburn, was worse than a fizzle. It was a despondent scene.

Apparently, they didn't get along in the movie. It shows.

January 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your opinion of "Sabrina" is dead-on identical with mine. I have never seen an actor so apparently uncomfortable and so badly miscast as Bogart in that movie.

January 09, 2011  

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