A Lacklustre Outing for Martin Beck in The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

I chose this book as part of Past Offences’ blog monthly Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge. I found it interesting that the introduction to this novel was written by Colin Dexter, who before writing the introduction, had never read any of the Martin Beck novels. Aside from thinking it a little odd to choose a novice reader of the series to introduce this novel, I did find it interesting to read as Dexter is incredibly honest in his novice status and the introduction is more an opportunity for him to address his preconceptions concerning the series, some justified, others not.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared

The novel opens with rather dry humour which is reinforced by the matter of fact tone of the narrative, such as when in the first paragraph a man’s suicide is built up to, emphasising how tidy he is. Once he has shot himself, the narrative merely notes that, ‘That did not look quite so tidy.’ What makes this simple case of suicide mysterious is that Martin Beck’s name is written on a piece of paper near the telephone. But our series’ sleuth does not know this man and the opening of the novel concentrates more on Beck’s life outside of his work such as visiting his mother who is keen that her grandson should not also become a policeman. This makes Beck reflect on his choice of career and it seems it was influenced by wanting to avoid military service. Some of the stronger parts in this novel are Beck’s moments of self-reflection, as they enable us as readers to get know Beck much more clearly and sympathetically in a way you can’t with the other members of the detective team. These moments also allow the writers of this novel to voice some of their own ideas about the state and the individual:

‘That ought to mean that he was a good policeman, but he was not so sure… He was not even certain he wanted to be a good policeman, if that involved being a dutiful person who never deviated one iota from the regulations.’


But this novel is not all self-reflection and analysis and very early on in the book the plot literally explodes in the form of a block of flats bursting into flames. The building was being observed by the police, as one of the occupants, Göran Malm, is being watched to see if he will lead the police to another man who is also involved in a car stealing racket in Stockholm. Gunvald Larsson, who has organised the stakeout witnesses the fire and is quite heroic in his attempts to save as many of the occupants as he can, getting injured in the process. This is possibly the nicest moment he has in the novel, as subsequently his behaviour and attitudes are not particularly likeable. A key question for a significant amount of the story is whether the fire was an accident or arson, with forensics playing an important role in answering this question. Another question is whether Malm committed suicide or was murdered before the fire started as early on it is deduced that he died before the fire started.

This novel is a police procedural so therefore we are introduced to many different officers with different roles and temperaments such as Melander who is in charge of assessing the crime scene and is similar to the British TV character Brian Lane in New Tricks, as they both have exceptional memories which they use for remembering details about lots of cases. There is also Kolberg, but I found I couldn’t really like him. There are also some new young recruits who are forever getting teased and assigned mind numbingly boring jobs, though one of these jobs does lead to an important break in the case. Unsurprisingly there are different tensions and animosities within the group, though Beck seems to be detached and uninvolved in them. The investigation does not have a closed set of suspects and much of the novel involves the various policemen trying to track down Malm’s partner in crime. But will doing so provide more questions than answers? And one question which keeps bugging Larsson is why did the fire engine take so long to get to the scene? The investigation culminates in an action filled, yet not particularly tense or dramatic ending, which to be honest was rather a damp squib.

It is evident that the novel is well-written and it is an easy read, but for me I just can’t get into Martin Beck’s world (as this is my third Beck novel), which presents not particularly likeable characters, in rather primitive and raw ways at times. Furthermore I did feel women were objectified in comparison to the male characters, as when even minor characters such as policemen’s wives were being physically described, for no obvious value or reason, the focus seemed to be on how sexually attractive they were or were not. The same oddly enough does not happen to the male characters and I felt this presentation of women unnecessary as it didn’t add to the novel. It may be that the authors are trying to create a male dominated atmosphere/ society through the third person narration, as well as the thoughts and dialogue of the characters, but I don’t find such an atmosphere appealing. In addition, the plot was not particularly remarkable, the killer not very interesting, being rather elusive and shadowy and the investigation itself doesn’t really hook you. I think I have to come to the conclusion that these are perhaps not my sort of books.

Rating: 2.5/5

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  1. This was your third Beck? That doesn’t bode well. Interesting review as you picked up on things I didn’t really pay much attention to. It really is a well written novel but that’s it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I’ve also read The Man on the Balcony and The Laughing Policeman a couple of years ago, which I did enjoy more than this one plot wise as far as I can remember but I did struggle to get on with the majority of the policemen characters, barring Beck, but I think that is because I find grittier/ bleak police procedurals are not my preferred genre.


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