April 06, 2012

Plod the policeman

In the UK, 'the Plod' is sometimes used as shorthand for the Police, presumably because they're seen as deliberate, slow-moving, conscious of detail: plodders.

Well that could certainly be used to describe Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's homicide squad in Roseanna, their first novel in the Martin Beck series, published in 1965 in Sweden and translated into English a couple of years later.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a dead girl in a canal in Borenshult. She is naked and there's no way of identifying her. The story then shows the slow process undertaken by Beck and his squad to identify her and find the killer. Unlike many contemporary crime novels, the investigation takes place over several months.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

The strength is that there is a great sense of realism pervading the investigation. Bearing in mind it's taking place before the internet, email and even personal computing, much of the search has to be done by policemen going to talk to people. Hence a good deal of the book is given over to transcripts of interviews, written verbatim. We're simply listening in, or reading over the policemen's shoulders.

Additionally, the police spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen - not necessarily for the criminal to do something, but simply waiting for information, or for the post to arrive from America (the victim turns out to be American).

This, then, is for me the weakness of the book - at least for a contemporary audience. Capturing the realism of police investigation doesn't necessarily lead to dynamic and dramatic action, and much of the time the pace drags.

But what can contemporary writers learn from it?

First, the sense of place is very strong. The authors are very specific about locations, using street names and buildings to place the action very clearly in real locations:
"Otherwise he walks up Regering Street, King Street, Queen Street, Barnhus Street, Uppland Street, Observatory Street, through Vasa Park, across St. Erik's Square, past Birk Street and home."
There's never any doubt that the characters are in real places and moving amongst real people leading their ordinary lives.

Secondly, there is a lot to learn about how the reader perceives or interacts with the protagonist. Here the authors position us outside the protagonist's consciousness very deliberately so that we're intrigued by him but never really know him. There are some clear techniques used to do this: primarily, he is always referred to by his full name, Martin Beck. This makes him somehow a person that we observe from the outside; the use of 'Martin' would have placed us too close; calling him 'Beck' would have simply appeared as typical novelistic shorthand - he has to be known as something, after all. By using the full name, however, we're pushed away from his consciousness and are constantly made aware of his otherness, and perhaps his specialness.

Another technique used to position us outside of his consciousness is shown in the way his interactions with other people are handled, especially his wife:

At five-thirty the telephone rang.
'Are you coming home to dinner?"
'It doesn't seem so.'
'Aren't there any other policemen but you?' said his wife. 'Do you have to do everything? When do they think you'll see your family? The children are asking for you.'
'I'll try to get home by six-thirty.'
An hour and a half later his report was finished.
Note how Beck doesn't get drawn into an argument with his wife but simply states, 'I'll try to get home by six-thirty.' And then we don't see the conclusion of the conversation, but we're told the report was finished an hour and a half later. This creates a very cool temperature around his relationship with his wife, and with others too. Conversations are concluded abruptly without any great emotion having been expressed. Typically, we're not given any insight into what Beck might have thought at the end of the conversation. It just happens, and then the next thing happens, and then the next ... It's almost a representation of E.M. Forster's distinction between Plot and Story: In a Story, the King dies and then the Queen dies. In a Plot, the King dies and then the Queen dies of grief. There is some kind of connection between the two events.

Roseanna definitely has the feel of a story, a sequence of events that are laid out before us, mediated ever so slightly through the consciousness of an investigating policeman. But the policeman has no greater insight into the murderer's motives than we do, makes no imaginative leaps to put the jigsaw together, has no greater grasp of human psychology than anyone else. He's just persistent and dogged. The authors' style facilitates this doggedness by being objective, distanced, cool and, like Martin Beck himself, I'm afraid, just a little plodding.

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