Swedish detective dramas roots begin at the conception of Beck – a series of Swedish police detective novels. Written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and Published from 1965-1975, the novels followed two detectives, Martin Beck and Gunvald Larrson, solving gruesome murders in the underbelly of Stockholm. Following this, multiple movie reincarnations tried and failed (to some degree) to capture the seedy and controversial lives of these detectives. Finally, in 1997 it was reincarnated as an 8 episode TV series (sometimes referred to as a movie series) which proved to be the best outlet for the programme. 5 years after the end of season 4 (back in 2010) Beck has finally arrived on BBC4 with the great expectation we have for all Swedish detective dramas – perfection.
The first episode follows Martin and Gunvald investigating the murder of a Woman in a rather gratuitous manner – suffocated in a wooden crate in the ground. The Investigation becomes even more serious when the Woman is identified as Annikia Runfeldt, a District attourney responsible for the prosecution of several high-ranking gang members. But the murders don’t stop there. When other bodies are found the motives begin to evolve from a secular act of revenge to a string of historic killings. Why these specific people? Why bury them in the ground? Questions that become even more ambiguous as the case progresses.
Episode one doesn’t really show a good relationship between Martin and Gunvald – rather two secular characters with not much of a relationship. The presumption that the BBC has taken is that the audience hasn’t seen series 1-4, meaning that the whole series is new and all the characters are being met for the first time. Unfortunately this means that the order of the episodes is wrong in reference to the transmission date of the original airing in Sweden. I think, in the long run, this is a good idea as episode two ‘room 302’ shows a much more positive working and personal relationship between the two characters.
Beck is a really well structured detective series. Perhaps a little predictable – and safe – but it has fantastic suspenseful scenes that build effortlessly towards the end. It sticks to the structured narrative that explores equilibrium (and disequilibrium) as well as focusing strongly on the inciting incident that usually start with the discovery of a dead body. Preservation of the stories secrets right until the end – forcing the viewer to become ‘analytical detective’ in order to solve the murder before Beck – is very clever and very emotive.
Episode two starts fairly similar – in regards to the discovery of a body (that inciting incident I was talking about before). A young girl is murdered in a hotel after a night of hard partying – with the prime suspect being the man who rented the room that night. With Gunvald investigating, he finds that the identity of the two men who rented the room were young and drunk – not the description of the middle-aged suspect. Could it be the ex-boyfriend looking for revenge? The two men who paid for the room? Or could it be someone who works at the hotel? As the information begins to flow the list of suspects only seems to get longer.
Detective dramas, whatever format they may take, are a staple of Scandinavian media. British detective series such as Midsummer murders, acquired at 2002, has had spectacular viewing figures because of its ‘whodoneit’ type shows and easy to follow self-contained episodes. Sweden’s affinity with the crime/detective dramas made sure that Midsummer Murders and Morse were going to be successful on SVT (their equivalent of a public broadcaster).
The only real negative of this drama is the somewhat predictable format the detective show has taken. Whilst I list this is a negative, the ability to hit all the crime related tropes and narrative elements of a detective drama is by no means a drawback of its quality. It’s perfected this genre to a brilliant degree and used 50-year-old source material and crafted it, in retaliation to the technological advancements, into a modern drama able to compete with anything that the BBC has output in the last few years.