John Dziuban is a recipient of the Ginny Wray Prize in Fiction, awarded yearly for the best writing by a student at Purchase College in White Plains, New York. His nonfiction has appeared in several online publications. His first published work of fiction, “Down the Mine,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2022. Like most writers, John is also a devoted reader of the form of fiction he writes, and he was lucky enough to inherit a remarkable collection of mysteries! It forms his topic for this post. —Janet Hutchings
These are dark times we’re living in. No sh*t, Sherlock. Climate change, global pandemic, political upheaval, and mass murder are black clouds, both literal and metaphorical, flashing unavoidably before our screen-strained eyes. In the context of all this tension, and when mass death has become below-the-fold-news, is a single fictional murder in a story still relevant? I think so, jaded as I am. How about you? For me, it’s all in the humanity.
A few years ago, my wife Silvia’s Aunt passed away suddenly. As the family went through her possessions in the cavernous pre-war Upper West Side apartment where Aunt Liz had lived since before Watergate, my gaze naturally kept returning to the books that occupied the entire twelve-foot living-room wall. I’d skimmed the spines many times during visits, hadn’t ever had a chance to really dive into them, but I knew this: they were every one of them mystery novels. Not a Stephen King horror book in sight, none of that nasty Thomas Harris “psychological thriller” stuff for Aunt Liz, nope. Just straight up mysteries. (Oh, the conversations I never had with her. Oh, how I wish she could see my name in the pages of Ellery Queen.)
When the collective gaze of the family came to the wall of mysteries and the inevitable question of what to do with all those books was raised, my response was loud and immediate, practically Pavlovian: We’ll take them! Never mind that our suburban starter home was very small and completely out of shelf space. This collection was a family treasure, at least through the eyes of that family’s shortest-tenured member.
So, we did take them. We pulled them all down from the wall, boxed them up, walked them down the many flights of stairs in that elevator-less apartment building, packed them in the car, and drove them home. As I unpacked them, dusted them off, and placed them alphabetically on the brand-new set of shelves that our living room was hardly big enough for, I got to take a close look at every single one. Every bit of salacious jacket art and all those titles, leaving no pun unturned (Murders and Acquisitions anyone? Yes, please and thank you Haughton Murphy, best-selling author of the Reuben Frost Mystery series).
In doing all this work, I fell in love with this strange and hyper-specific library, got to know dozens of titles, covers, and authors, dating from the 1960s to present. Many names popped up over and over: Sue Grafton and her alphabet series, tragically lacking book Z, Robert B. Parker posing on the back flap with his dog, but none of them spoke to me quite like one of the oldest series in the collection: a set of slim, black paperbacks bearing the distinctly un-American names of their co-authors, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a Swedish duo who began publishing their Martin Beck series of mysteries in 1965. I had no idea how to pronounce those names, still don’t quite even after enlisting the help of a friend who grew up in Sweden, but upon reading I did know this: I wouldn’t stop until I’d read all of them.
A bit of research will tell you that these books are considered the genesis of “Scandinavian Noir,” and I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words, I think of bleak settings, bleak characters, bleak writing. Not so in the Martin Beck world. Cynicism? Yes. In boatloads numerous enough to fill a fjord, but these books are full of a dark joy. Sjowall and Wahloo’s jaded eye falls on every character, group and place that they go. Location of murder? Dirty tourist trap. The hippies that protest in the streets? Hopeless young idealists who haven’t had the rose-colored views beaten out of them yet. The police who beat up the hippies in the street? Dumb brutes spoiling for a fight. Even Detective Martin Beck himself isn’t safe. He’s a terrible husband, who, over the course of the books, slowly moves further away from his marital bed. Literally: in one book he and his wife share a bed, in the next they have separate beds, in the next he sleeps on the couch and so on. He’s not even a particularly good detective! He spends the majority of the pages bumbling around town without the slightest clue as to who might have done the crime, eventually falling into the solution by chance.
As I read and thought about the authors’ writing (and my own, as any writer does) it struck me that these stories of single murder, perpetrated by a single, seemingly sane individual felt somehow quaint all these decades since the books were published. And what a terrible thought that is, what a terrible reality to face. As a writer who hopes to publish books (agents, publishers: email@example.com) somewhere along the lines of these mysteries, murder stories, noirs, is it even possible to make a story about a single death fly? It must be. Does anyone care? Surely someone. How do Sjowall and Wahloo make me care? It’s the humanity, stupid.
In the first book the titular character Roseanna is dead before the first page, but they spend the subsequent pages filling that character in. Telling me why it’s a tragedy that this pretend person is no longer with us in 1965. They show me pictures of her and let the people who knew her react to her death, tell us about Roseanna’s hopes and dreams. And goddamnit of course the loss of a single life by murder is a tragedy. Why the hell wouldn’t it be? Because it happens every day? Because we’ve all seen streaming video of lunatics killing dozens with automatic weapons in schools, theaters, and grocery stores? Am I so desensitized? Are we mystery obsessives obsessed with death? I don’t think so. Show people statistics and you’ll get a ho-hum. Show them a character and they’ll care. The obsession is not with death, but with life, with what is no longer there.
I haven’t yet finished the entire Martin Beck series, but I certainly will and you could do a lot worse with your time as well. Every time I see their covers or think of their fully formed characters, I think of Aunt Liz too and how much I wish she was still here to talk about these stories. I’m thankful for her thousand pounds of mysteries on my wall, and I wonder if she’d agree with me that we’re obsessed with life rather than death. I choose to believe that she would.