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Wimsey and Beck

The Nine Tailors and RosannaMystery novels are a great way to get through a Minnesota winter. A book (or a Nook), a comfortable chair, a beautiful snowy landscape visible through a well-insulated window, and perhaps a warm cup of coffee laced with Irish cream. Ideal! If the leading character–the gumshoe, the shamus, the private dick–is an old familiar friend, all the better.

The mystery/crime genre lends itself well to the recurring leading character. Sherlock Holmes is the epitome, and I am a big fan of the world’s first consulting detective.[1] I’ve been through the canon at least twice and I’ve indulged in a fair selection of the Holmes apocrypha that continues to appear more than 80 years after Arthur Conan Doyle’s death.

Holmes’s literary descendents include Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Father Brown, Adam Dalgleish, Mike Hammer and so many more.

After Holmes, my favorites have been the English sophisticate Lord Peter Wimsey and the Swedish police inspector Martin Beck.[2] Each is featured in an extended series of novels in which–somewhat unusual for the genre–they undergo significant and important character development. They couldn’t be a more dissimilar pair.

Over the past eighteen months I reread both cycles. Given another dozen years or so, I would read them again. I won’t be given the time, so I can only encourage others to enjoy them in my stead.[3]

Lord Peter Wimsey and Dorothy L Sayers

Lord Peter Wimsey novelsLord Peter was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford. He served the British Army in World War I and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to live the life of a rare-book-collecting, literary-quotation-spouting English gentleman.[4] With the help of his family’s money and his extraordinarily resourceful manservant Bunter, he adds detective work to his list of hobbies. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is sometimes called upon by the British government to handle delicate diplomatic matters.

Sayers famously fell in love with her creation. About half way through her series of eleven Lord Peter novels, she introduced herself as a character, thinly disguised as mystery writer Harriet Vane. Several (not all) of the subsequent novels feature Vane, and their extended pas de deux became central to the meta-story. The last novel in the series is named Busman’s Honeymoon. It shouldn’t be hard to interpret that clue to the culmination of their relationship.

Several entertaining recurring minor characters populate the stories. Miss Climpson oversees a pool of maiden secretaries who assist Peter in his crimesolving hobby, dissolute nephew Lord Saint-George provides occasional comic relief, and Scotland Yard inspector Charles Parker woos and weds Lord Peter’s sister.

Dorothy L SayersThe Nine Tailors is generally considered to be the outstanding novel in the series (Graham Greene praised it as perhaps the finest mystery novel ever written). Murder Must Advertise, which draws heavily from Sayers’s experience writing for an advertising agency, and Five Red Herrings, with five dodgy painters at the center of its plot, are two of my favorites.

Fun fact: Whose Body?, Lord Peter’s 1923 debut, was edited to remove inspector Parker’s observation that a naked body found in a bath cannot be that of the missing Sir Reuben Levy because “Sir Reuben is a pious Jew of pious parents, and the chap in the bath obviously isn’t.” The implication that Parker was referring to an uncircumcised corpse was an unseemly one.

If you tend toward Anglophilia and/or are looking for a worthy successor to Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter and these novels are for you.[5]

Dorothy L Sayers’s The Nine Tailors was published in 1934 and is listed at #13 on Bachblog’s 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels. Her Murder Must Advertise was published in 1933 and is listed at #24 on the same list.


Martin Beck, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Martin Beck novelsMartin Beck has none of Lord Peter’s charms. Where Wimsey is loquacious, upbeat, impulsive and sauve, Beck is taciturn, cynical, careful and awkward. Moreover, Beck is frequently unhealthy–bad sinuses, stomach trouble and sleeplessness–and he is often unhappy at work and at home.

He is real. Okay, he is fictional, but he feels real in a way that Lord Peter Wimsey and even Sherlock Holmes do not.

These ten novels fit into the “police procedural” sub-genre. Put that way, it doesn’t sound like my kind of series. I don’t watch cop shows on television (not since Adam 12 or Barney Miller anyway). But I like these a lot.[5] I’m tempted to make the claim that they rise above the genre, but how would I know? There is just too much of it out there for me to be familiar with any but a tiny slice of it. I’m sure there are many other worthy examples.

Maj Sjöwall and Per WahlööThe authors, a husband and wife team sometimes credited with creating “Swedish noir,” conceived of their series as “The Story of a Crime.” The crime in question is committed by the state against its own citizens. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were Marxists who considered Sweden’s welfare state to be a failure–an ineffective and heartless middle ground between capitalism and communism, leaving too many of its citizens behind. The social commentary throughout the series hammering on this point adds considerably to its appeal. Only in the last couple of novels does it become over-sanctimonious and distracting.

Martin Beck is the center around which these stories revolve, but an appealing cast of characters led by his colleagues Lennart Kollberg (a socialist who declines to carry a gun in the performance of his duties) and the bull-in-a-china-shop Gunvald Larsson. A host of other recurring characters appear. Several are brilliantly comic.

I’d probably pick Roseanna, The Man on the Balcony and The Laughing Policeman as my favorites. The last of these won the Edgar Award for best crime novel in 1971 from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1995 the same organization rated it the second-best-ever police procedural.[7]

Fun fact: Walter Matthau played Detective Jake Martin (what was wrong with the name Martin Beck?) in the 1973 Hollywood film The Laughing Policeman. It was set in San Francisco (what was wrong with Stockholm?). I don’t think I will see it.[8]

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman was published in 1968 (English translation in 1970) and is listed at #43 on Bachblog’s 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels.



  1. Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin preceded Holmes and was, like Sherlock, an amateur detective. But as far as I am aware, he did not call himself a “consulting detective.” [^]
  2. Twenty years ago I would have included Father Brown. Two or three years ago, I reread Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown and was unimpressed. [^]
  3. I can imagine the reader of this thinking, “Who rereads mysteries? What’s the point?” I can only say that I am blessed with a poor memory for the details of a plot. After ten years or so I forget that the butler did it. [^]
  4. Called “shell shock” at that time, not PTSD. [^]
  5. Sayers also wrote a couple of dozen or more short stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. I read them years ago and do not remember being particularly impressed. [^]
  6. In my mind, Åke Edwardson’s Erik Winter is Martin Beck’s successor. Maybe I really do like police procedurals. [^]
  7. Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead was rated number one. [^]
  8. According to Wikipedia, all ten novels have been made into feature films. Most of these in Sweden. [^]

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