This summer, Lee Child (headliner at this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival) won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year prize, one of the top (if not the top) British award for crime fiction, for his novel “61 Hours.”
The award — 3,000 British pounds and a handmade, engraved beer barrel (awesome) — was presented at the annual crime writing festival in Harrogate, also sponsored by Theakstons Old Peculier.
As part of the lead-in to the festival, the Guardian newspaper asked several crime writers, including Child, about their favourite crime writers. (It’s a British award, so we’re leaving that U in favorite.) The whole thing is worth a read; everyone from John le Carre to G.K. Chesterton to Nancy Drew is there.
But Lee Child picked a winner. In his words:
My favourite crime series character? Instant temptation to name someone obscure, to prove I read more than you. Second temptation is to go full-on erudite, maybe asking whether someone from some 12th-century ballad isn’t really the finest ever . . . as if to say, hey, I might make my living selling paperbacks out of the drugstore rack, but really I’m a very serious person.
Third temptation is to pick someone from way back who created or defined the genre. But the problem with characters from way back is that they’re from, well, way back. Like the Model T Ford. It created and defined the automobile market. You want to drive one to work tomorrow? No, I thought not. You want something that built on its legacy and left it far behind.
Same for crime series characters. So, which one took crime fiction’s long, grand legacy, and respected it, and yet still came out with something fresh and new and significant? Martin Beck is the one. He exists in 10 1960s and 70s novels by the Swedish Marxist team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They did two things with Beck: they created the normal-cop-in-a-normal-city paradigm, the dour guy a little down on his luck; and they used a crime series explicitly as social critique. All was not well in Sweden, they thought, and they said so through accessible entertainment rather than political screeds.
And along the way they gave birth to a whole stream of successors. From the current Scandinavians to Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko to Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, they’re all Martin Beck’s grandchildren.
As the man says, there are just 10 Martin Beck books (the series ended with Wahlöö’s death in 1975), but they are great. They should be read in order, beginning with 1967’s “Roseanna.” They’ve never been all that scarce, but have recently been reissued, so if you’re interested, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding them.
Child’s comments prompted me to reread a couple (including “The Laughing Policeman,” the one that was made into a not-very-good 1973 movie starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern and moved to San Francisco). The books hold up well, even though some details are a little dated — for instance, “The Laughing Policeman” starts off with an anti-Vietnam protest at the American embassy, but it’s easy to imagine a similar protest taking place today.
So if you don’t know Martin Beck, pick up a novel and introduce yourself. Then, if you run into Lee Child at the Book Festival, you’ll have something to talk about.