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the locked room

20 january 2012

The Locked Room is such a masterful crime novel that I have to mourn, all the more and all the more belatedly, the death of co-author Per Wahlöö in 1975. Always good, often brilliant, the series of police procedurals that Wahlöö wrote with Maj Sjöwall got better and better as they went along.

The keynote of The Locked Room is the failure of things to line up. The novel ends with a key character wondering "Someone must know. Who?" (311). But only the omniscient narrator (and through him or her, the reader) does know everything. Within the novel's universe, everybody's missing a crucial part of the puzzle. People are convicted of the wrong crimes, police forestall the wrong criminal schemes, heroes are denied acclaim for the wrong reasons.

At the heart of The Locked Room is a more corrosive view of Sweden than ever before, even in the notably cynical Sjöwall / Wahlöö series. Years of welfare-state semi-socialism have left the country in utter decay. "Malaise" was not unique to the United States in the 1970s. For a complex of reasons traceable, probably, to causes as disparate as the globalization of postcolonial economies, the sexual revolution, and the collapse of archaic class and caste systems, a lot of people thought that the First World was going to hell in a handbasket during the 1970s. Sjöwall & Wahlöö thought so more eloquently and sarcastically than most.

The main plot of The Locked Room is a heist story where the cops and robbers are all fools. The bizarre antics of the thieves and their pursuers are emblematic of a Sweden gone mad. But isolated from the turmoil that the authors perceived in 1970s Stockholm is a locked room right out of John Dickson Carr. The room, visible from detective chief inspector Martin Beck's office, has contained a dead man, shot in the chest, his death instantaneous. But the victim Svärd, aside from being extremely dead, is also extremely security-conscious. The windows and doors of his apartment are locked tight – and there's no pistol inside.

In other words, impossible. Impossibility becomes emblematic of a world gone mad. Nothing in this Sweden makes sense; why should a slowly-cooling murder case? Martin Beck, using the best whodunit logic, plodding police procedure, and some serendipity provided by a new sort-of-love-interest, solves the murder case – and nobody believes him, because the solution itself is manifestly impossible.

The Locked Room plays against all sorts of 20th-century crime-fiction conventions: that bank robbery will out; that master detectives' logic will draw admring gasps from a roomful of eliminated suspects; that convicted criminals end up atoning justly for what they've done, even if in a postman-rings-twice sort of way. Without the tradition, it wouldn't exist. Given that tradition, it's a masterpiece. That's a rough working definition of postmodernism.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Locked Room: The story of a crime. [Det slutna Rummet, 1972.] Translated by Paul Britten Austin. New York: Pantheon [Random House], 1973.