Friday, February 04, 2011

Barack for Martin Beck

          "Barack?" said the waiter.
"What's that?" said Martin Beck, first in German, then in English.

"Very gut apéritif," said the waiter.

Martin Beck drank the apéritif called barack. Barack palinka, explained the waiter, was Hungarian apricot brandy.
The things you learn in books. I read the above in a Swedish police procedural by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, a novel starring Stockholm detective Martin Beck. The authors wrote ten novels featuring Martin Beck before Wahlöö died in 1975.

One of the novels, The Laughing Policeman, was made into a 1973 movie with Walter Matthau as "Jake Martin," the location changed from Stockholm to San Francisco. The authors used as their inspiration the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain. Before McBain there just weren't too many detective novels that utilized real police techniques. Crimes aren't solved in 60 minutes, Despite the perception left by popular TV shows and movies. Most of detective work is legwork, talking to people. In 1969's The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, there is a certain plodding quality, replete with details. In both of the books in this omnibus from Mystery Guild, Martin Beck Mysteries, Martin is meticulous with details. The first novel, Roseanna, from 1967, is a step-by-step story of the process of finding out the identity of a murder victim, and then tracking down her murderer. Martin Beck is also a keen observer, as witnessed by this description of a witness he attempts to interview in The Man Who Went Up In Smoke:
The woman seemed surprised. Very likely, she had been expecting someone. She was wearing a dark-blue, two-piece bathing suit and in her right hand she was carrying a green rubber diving mask and a snorkel. She was standing with her feet wide apart and her left hand still on the lock, quite still, as if paralyzed in the middle of a movement. Her hair was dark and short, and her features were strong. She had thick black eyebrows, a broad straight nose and full lips. Her teeth were good but somewhat uneven. Her mouth was half-open and the tip of her tongue was resting against her lower teeth, as if she was just about to say omething. She was barely taller than five foot one, but strongly and hamoniously built, with well-developed shoulders, broad hips and quite a narrow waist. Her legs were muscular and her feet short and broad, with straight toes. she had a very deep suntan and her skin appeared soft and elastic, especially across her diaphragm and stomach. Shaved armpits. Large breasts and curved stomach with thick down that seemed very light against her tanned skin. Here and there, long and curly black hairs had made their way out from the elastic at her loins. She might have been twenty-two or twenty-three years old, at the most. Not beautiful in the conventional sense of the word, but a highly functional specimen of the human race.
"Highly functional specimen of the human race." I love that. You might also say that Martin Beck is a highly functional specimen of a police detective, going about his job methodically. So much so that his work interferes with his family life and later in the series he divorces. Martin also strikes me as depressed and obsessive-compulsive; not necessarily bad traits for a detective.

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has reprinted all ten novels in paperback, and they are available through

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