The writer as detective: my investigation Not only the search for truth, but long hours and avoidance behaviour make fictional policemen kindred spirits with their authors January 10, 2008 1:51 PM
The detective is a metaphor for the writer: the isolated figure trying to comprehend a disordered world, constructing a narrative that makes sense, and trying to persuade others of believe in his or her account.
I was struck by this thought some time ago but it came back to me while reading Roseanna, the first of the Martin Beck novels by the Swedish husband and wife writing team, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. A Christmas present from my nine-year-old daughter (showing worrying precocity given the book's adult subject matter), it was my first encounter with Martin Beck. I shall definitely be going back for more.
One of the earliest police procedural crime novels, with a highly realistic and unromantic depiction of policing, you might not expect it to give much house room to conscious literary effects such as metaphors. There are no metaphors in real life, after all. But it was the book's emphasis on the drudgery and routine of police work, its insistence on the glacially slow rate of progress, its fascination with the failures and frustrations of the job that got me thinking that there was something of the kind going on. Or perhaps the drudgery and routine of writing, its glacially slow rate of progress, its failures and frustrations, were just too much on my own mind ...
But this is a book with an American detective in it called Kafka - Elmer B Kafka, to be precise. There's literary (and funny) for you. (As you can imagine, the Kafka character gives rise to a fair amount of deadpan humour, along the lines of "'I got a cable from Kafka.' 'That's a hell of a way to start a working day,' said Kollberg.")
Besides, in the Stockholm Homicide Squad imagined by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the detective is often quite literally a writer. To borrow a phrase from the book, he is 'the man at the typewriter', struggling to find the right words for a report, letter, cable or statement. Sometimes the man at the typewriter is Martin Beck. Sometimes it's one of his colleagues, Melander or Kollberg. The case is created out of the circulation and interpretation of these written texts, expanded and enhanced by crucial communications coming in from other policemen outside the squad. Martin Beck at one point even appears to be a creative writing teacher, as he gives an assignment to one of the other detectives:
'Will you do me a favour?' said Martin Beck looking at Kollberg.
'Always ready to,' answered Kollberg.
'I want you to write a new description, write it for me personally. Not a report but a real description. Not a description of a corpse but of a human being. Details. How she might have looked when she was alive. There's no hurry about it.'
So if the detective is the writer, his fictional creation is the murder victim. And in fact, there is a sense in the book that as Martin Beck becomes more preoccupied with the character he and his team create - that of Roseanna, the murdered woman - the distance grows between him and the real, living woman who is his wife. She pulls him back to the world of his family - the real rather than the imagined world - and he resents her for it. It's a phenomenon that has been noted in the lives of many artists, including writers. The detective rejects the living and chooses the dead, while the writer chooses the fictional, those who have never lived. The obsessiveness of the detective is akin to the obsessiveness of the writer.
Existential angst, hypochondria, procrastination, an unhealthy reliance on artificial stimulants such as coffee (to the detriment of his health), a preoccupation with mortality and the passage of time - these are characteristics Martin Beck shares with, I'm sure, many writers. But perhaps the most writerly of all his traits is simply the need to be read.
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