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murder at the savoy

18 january 2011

Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is one of the most thrilling banal books ever written. It is a deliberate exercise in contradiction of terms. A murder occurs almost at random, while its victim is giving a canned after-dinner speech that nobody is really listening to. The killer is too nondescript to attract notice, and disappears from view while the cops who should be arresting him are eating fast food and arguing with a kid who's making fun of them. (That's the origin of the rather odd Swedish title, Polis, Polis, Potatismos! – apparently this is something you can yell at Swedish cops to really enrage them.) The police make no particular headway in solving the mystery, though they unearth an embezzler that they can't do much about and a high-class hooker they can't do much about either. Finally a crucial bit of evidence washes up on a beach: the box that held the murder weapon, complete with the killer's name. Case closed.

The brilliance of Murder at the Savoy – and it really is brilliant, an arch, glittering novel full of sharp wordplay and characters strung out on the edge of coping – comes from its defiance of the melodramatic conventions of its genre. There's no master criminal. There is some gunplay in one chase scene, but it's accidental, futile, and harmless. There's romance between two cops: but it's prefaced by one of them saying to the other "Sooner or later. Why not now?" (162).

And there's detection, but of a sort that makes the standard "procedural" seem like James Bond. Even rogue cop Gunvald Larsson doesn't do much outrageous except annoy his sister and punch the fleeing embezzler in the jaw.

How can so few interesting things happen in a novel, yet the ensemble of the whole be so compelling? With that question we're probably at the heart of what draws readers to police procedurals. Here are ordinary people, at work in a system where mind-numbing routine is the order of the day. They lead uninteresting lives. All of us do, really, so we like to learn about the uninteresting lives of others. The procedural gives us a way of doing so where the essential purpose of the characters' efforts is admirable (if not always effectual), and where the drive of every plot is toward the establishment of what really happened). Fact, after all (and pace the more postmodern, indeterminate reaches of the genre) is a bedrock comfort.

Fact, though not, in this case (and in many by Sjöwall & Wahlöö) redemption or the re-righting of the Universe. Lots of bad people inhabit Murder at the Savoy, and as Martin Beck realizes in the denouement, the murderer is far from the worst among them, though he will suffer the most in the long run. It's not a hopeful vision, but in a way it's a solid vision, a dependable vision. Life in Beck's Sweden is depressing, but at least we know for a fact what goes on there.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. Murder at the Savoy. [Polis, Polis, Potatismos! 1970. Translated by Amy & Ken Knoespel. New York: Random House, 1971.