The Fire Engine That Disappeared, first published in Sweden in 1969 was the fifth in a series of ten Martin Beck mysteries written by the Swedish, husband and wife team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. The plot and structure of the Beck mysteries I've read to date do not deviate from the standard format found in any well-written police procedural. However, what sets the Beck mysteries apart is their location and character development. Naturally enough, each book is a small window into Swedish life and culture in the 1960s and 1970s when the books were written.
Further, as the series develops the character of Beck and his colleagues evolve and the reader slowly obtains a real feel for Beck and his fellow police officers. By this fifth book, the personalities of Martin Beck and his police colleagues have developed to the point where the reader almost has an instinct for how each will react to a given situation. At the same time the characters, especially Beck, remain far from predictable. However, they are already fully formed in the authors' minds and for that reason I suggest reading these books in order.
Martin Beck does not play center-stage in The Fire Engine That Disappeared. Rather, the leading role is played by his gruff, not very well liked colleague Gunvald Larsson. As the story opens, Larsson is taking a short- shift staking out a small boarding house on a frigid winter's night in Stockholm. The house explodes. Larsson rushes in and despite his heroic efforts there are quite a few deaths. The coroner quickly rules out arson but Larsson, being the stubborn cuss that he is, refuses to accept that conclusion. As the story progresses we see Larsson plowing ahead, diligently if not brilliantly. At the same time a seemingly unrelated case keeps Beck busy.
A number of things keep the Martin Beck stories interesting for me. First and foremost is the character development. None of the recurring characters are angels or virtuous men on horseback coming in to save the world from crime. They are cops, first and foremost, doing a tough job in a city, Stockholm, which had more than its share of murder and mayhem. Yet, after reading a few of these books I've grown attached to Beck and his crew. They aren't geniuses but they work. They dig out clues and they wait and they analyze and they dig some more. Second is the setting: Sweden in the 60s and 70s. Sjowall and Wahloo world view (they were socialist and strong supporters of the Social Democratic Party) does not create a rose-colored look at society but, rather, one that shows crime and moral decay even within a system that on its surface is dedicated to egalitarianism. They even seem to put forward some puritanical notions as they describe some of the consequences of the sexual revolution of the 60s and its impact on Swedish life. In other words, these remain detective stories and good ones at that. They are not polemics, quite the contrary in fact.
All in all the Martin Beck detective series is well worth reading and "The Fire Engine That Disappears" will not disappoint fans of the series.