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Review: Beck Episode 1

Ten books in the Martin Beck series of crime novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were published between 1965 and 1975 and have a strong claim as being the wellspring of the Scandinavian noir genre.

The novels were police procedurals but with themes that drew from a critical appraisal of the political and social structures of Sweden. This mix of genre and social commentary featuring a somewhat depressive central character can be seen as a progenitor of ‘Nordic Noir’ with the most obvious descendants being Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander and Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

The original ten novels had all been filmed by 1994 with a variety of actors playing Beck, including Walter Matthau and Derek Jacobi. The series now being screened in the UK took the characters and created new mysteries. Featuring Peter Haber as Beck and Mikael Persbrandt as his slicker colleague Gunvald Larsson, the series first aired in 1997. Presented as a new series by BBC Four, the first story, ‘Buried Alive’, is actually a 2010 episode and subsequent films will be from the fifth season released in Sweden in 2015.

‘Buried Alive’ begins with the chilling night-time abduction of a woman. She is taken whilst sitting in her car during as it passes through an automated car wash. The sequence could have come from a stylish Italian horror film and it leads to a gruesome discovery in a children’s park. A child uncovers a plastic lined coffin buried in a sand pit; the victim had been buried alive and left to suffocate. Horror inflections continue through the episode, hitting some enjoyable beats familiar to anyone with a decent working knowledge of slasher movies (in particular a moment with a fridge).

Beck: Buried Alive

Beck and his team receive the case as the victim is a high profile criminal prosecutor. Suspicion first falls on a biker gang who she was prosecuting, but when their chief suspect is also abducted and murdered in a similar – but even more gruesome – fashion, it is clear that there is a more twisted motive behind the killings.

This was a reasonable choice of story to introduce viewers new to the character, such as myself. The mystery was nicely gruesome and later plot developments introduced significant jeopardy for the lead characters. The downside of coming into a long running series cold is that the characters are difficult to warm to as their back stories and interpersonal histories are taken as shared knowledge by the series creators. Without these details, many of the secondary characters and relationships seemed clichéd, such as Beck’s relationship with a female colleague, and the slightly green younger detective. Beck himself initially seems like a strange choice for the title character when Larsson seems the more charismatic character with his expensive coat and eagerness to wave his gun around.

There was enough going on to hold the attention, but this was very much a detective story that treated the conventions of the procedural drama as items to be embraced like worn leather gloves and a warm scarf in a Nordic Autumn.

Starring: Peter Haber, Mikael Persbrandt, Stina Rautelin, Måns Nathanaelson

Review by Stuart Barr.

Did you catch Beck on Saturday? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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