In the first book group I ever joined, all the women were abuzz with talk of this mystery series. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to be officially introduced to Martin Beck.
In turn, it takes a loooong time for Martin Beck to be officially introduced to the victim in the first novel of this classic series.
Simply identifying her, after her body is fished out of Swedish waters, is a monumental task.
“Eighty-five people, one of whom was presumably guilty, and the rest of whom were possible witnesses, each had their small pieces that might fit into the great jig-saw puzzle. Eighty-five people, spread over four different continents. Just to locate them was a Herculean task.”
Indeed, much of this book is about the frustration and lack of progress in this case. And the reader is dragged along throughout the process, often even reading long transcripts only to be reminded of all that is not known, not understood.
Beck is aware that this could be the case that haunts him for the rest of his days, not just for the rest of his career, but for the rest of his life.
“He remembered so well that man had sat month after month, year after year, in his office late into the night, going through all the papers and rechecking the testimony for the five hundredth, or possibly the thousandth time.”
Because it’s not like Martin, either, can leave the case behind. Every aspect of his being is absorbed by it. And the only thing more absorbing than solving it is the sense that he’s not solving it. He finds it increasingly difficult to carry on even the impression of having anything like a “normal” life.
“Martin Beck slept on the train. He didn’t wake up before it arrived in Stockholm. He really only woke up when he got into his own bed at home.”
He’s not sleeping, not eating (hardly at all, and poorly even then), not explaining to his wife, not spending time with his kids, not doing anything else at all, actually.
“‘Christmas presents. I had completely forgotten.’
‘Me too,’ said Martin Beck. ‘That is to say I think of it from time to time but that’s all that ever gets done about it.'”
And naturally this takes a toll on those who surround him, primarily upon his wife.
“She had given up faith in this project a long time ago. It had not produced results and kept him away from home night after night. And he neither could nor would explain.”
She feels very much a character of the ’60s, which is appropriate, given this volume’s 1965 publication date; she is a woman who is showing her independence in some ways and still content to settle into a more traditional role when it suits her.
For me, her character had the smooth, expected contours of a familiar type, but, to be fair, this is not a role which affords her much dimensional presence. Roseanne is Beck’s story.
His wife is not a whole person to his thinking (likely because his focus on his work does not allow anyone close to him to take on a whole persona) and she does not appear so on the page either. What detective’s wife does exist on her own terms?
Which brings me, however, to talk of Mankell and Larsson; if you’ve read works of theirs, it’s quite fascinating to see the overlap and divergence between the opening of this classic series and the fiercely popular contemporary detectives’ work (even specific cases and clues).
* * *
Although this is one of those rare instances in which I enjoy the film version of the novel(s) more than the text narrative, I have had fun with these four novels.
I read them with that strange — and inherently satisfying — mix of the familiar and the new that comes with a series, at a time when that’s exactly what I wanted from my reading. You know what I mean?
Mind you, Sookie is not a character with whom I’d have much in common, were we to meet off the page.
And, because she has the uncanny ability to understand people’s thoughts as they’re having them, she would likely pick up pretty quickly on my feeling uneasy around her.
But it’s not that I don’t like her; it’s just that I don’t find her credible.
At times, in my opinion, she is clever, just the kind of clever that she needs to be, in order to advance the plot; at other times, she is not-so-clever, just the kind of not-so-clever that she needs to be, in order to advance the plot.
At first, I thought maybe I was reacting to the fact that she doesn’t always make rational decisions. That as a character, she’s all-over-the-place because of the circumstances in her life.
The first four books of the series pivot around the push/pull that Sookie feels to/from Bill and Eric, each of whom is, at various points, overwhelmingly repulsive and exceedingly attractive to her. (See how I’m avoiding all the spoilery stuff?!)
So it’s quite possible — and believable, to my mind — that she isn’t always making choices that are thoughtful, practical or consistent.
How can she be consistent, when she’s in flux, right? And not just about her love life, but about her friendships, her work, the responsibility of her “gift”/”curse”, and the losses that she has had to deal with (her parents died when she was young, for instance).
But but but. That doesn’t explain it for me;.
I can appreciate inconsistency in a character, when I wholly believe in a character, but I never completely believe in Sookie, so I am constantly floating atop my awareness that this is a tale being spun for me, and I never truly sink into the telling of it.
Still, Sookie’s character as envisioned by Alan Ball and portrayed by Anna Paquin, fleshes out the character in Charlaine Harris’ novels for me well enough to find the stories entertaining. Maybe I do stay on the surface of it all, and maybe that’s okay.
Besides, sometimes only a series will do. In those reading moods, even the repetitive elements work for me.
I don’t mind that, in the first book, Sookie says “I’m blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline”. And, in the next, she says “I look exactly like the girl you’d see in a low-paying job any place in any town in the South: blond and bosomy and tan and young”.
In these two books, she’s wearing her summer wardrobe for her waitressing job. In Dead Until Dark, she’s wearing Nikes; in Living Dead in Dallas, she’s got a pair of Adidas. In Club Dead, she’s shifted into her winter duds: “black slacks with white boat-neck long-sleeved tee with ‘Merlotte’s’ embroidered over the left breast”. By the time I get to the third book, I’m adding the “bosomy” bits myself.
And how can I not giggle when, in the first book, Bill’s mouth is compared to a prince’s on a Byzantine mosaic and, in the second, it’s compared to a Greek statue, so that by the time I get to the third, and his skin glows, his hair is thick and dark and smells like Herbal Essence, and he has a wonderful back with broad shoulders, I’ve got the classic profile solidly lodged in my reader’s brain.
I’m not entirely sure that I am meant to giggle at these things, but I love a good excuse to giggle. (And, frankly, I think I could use more giggle-worthy books.) And there are certainly times when I know that I *am* meant to, so it seems fair enough to extend the invitation.
“’Well, hel-lo, tall, blond, and dead,’ Claudine said. She looked Eric up and down, admiring what she saw. ‘You in the habit of doing what human women ask of you?’”
Sure, the tension in the series is maintained by the Bill-Eric drama (and, to a lesser extent, Sookie’s involvement with her boss, Sam, who has a secret of his own that is revealed near the end of the first novel).
Which fella is sitting up front with Sookie, which one is riding in the back seat, and which one is riding in the back of the pick-up truck: that’s the overarching storyline designed to pull readers through the series.
And it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. Sookie knows that.
“I read a lot. School was tough for me with my little problem, but reading by myself gave me a means of escape from my situation.”
Maybe Sookie does read a lot. Maybe we just don’t read the same things. And that’s okay with me. We don’t need to be BFFs; we can just meet on the page when I’m in the mood for a good giggle.
* * *
* * *
You’ve seen the cover a hundred times, right? You’ve heard almost as many readers insist that it’s unmissable?
But maybe you haven’t yet taken the plunge into steampunk? Maybe you’re a little uncomfortable with the idea.
Alexia Tarrabotti could relate, in some ways.
“She was quite uncomfortable, for corsets, bustles, and all other accoutrements of a lady’s appropriate dress were not conducive to lying, bound, on a hard floor.”
This is a tiny spoiler, I suppose: now you know that she is going to be bound on a floor somewhere.
But, really, within the first two pages of the novel, you know that Alexia is a firebrand.
“She shifted, sighed, and stared up at the ceiling, trying to think about anything but [deleted plot point], or [other deleted plot point]. Which meant she could do nothing but reflect on the complex plight of her mama’s most recent embroidery project. This, in itself, was a worse torture than any her captors could devise.”
She’s spunky. She has a kick-ass umbrella. She’s sassy. She’s not interested in embroidery. She’s someone that I would have loved to have met when I was a teenager. And she’s someone that I’m happy to know as a grown-up reader, too.
Soulless was my Can’t-Sleep-Read-Under-the-Covers book and I’m pretty sure it was much more useful for keeping me awake than for helping me settle back to sleep.
So, yeah. I’m supposed to be finishing series. At least catching up with them.
Go ahead. Ask me what I’m doing with these little lovelies. It makes no sense, I know.
Or you could tell me how many series you’re reading in right now.
Pick a number. If it’s got three digits in it, I might feel better.