We’re into the stygian evenings of September – a perfect backdrop to the penumbrous characters surrounding events in Swedish cop series Beck (adapted from the beloved novels of the legendary husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö). And as Jeremy Clarkson might say, Scandi dramas like first episode Buried Alive don’t come much darker than this.
Because taphephobia – fear of being buried alive – even more than that other primal terror of drowning is said to be the most pervasive fear of humankind. It is a staple of gothic horror from antiquity. In ancient Rome, vestal virgins who broke their vow of celibacy would be punished with a live entombment, the Middle Ages saw European folklore about grave-robbing with several versions of a tale called Lady With The Ring. The Victorians seemed to be obsessed by it, and Edgar Allan Poe wrote his short story The Premature Burial in the first person, describing the body’s process of decomposition.
So when Annika Runfelt, a top Stockholm district attorney with several high-profile criminal scalps to her credit, is found full of ketamine and boxed in a sandpit in a children’s playground, the media and the police view her murder as particularly macabre.
The chief suspect is the leader of a drug-running biker gang she has been targeting. But when he is found in a similar shallow grave, and other bodies – of different vintages and death signatures – begin turning up, Detective Inspector Martin Beck (Peter Haber, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and his squad realise that their adversary is no random serial killer – he has history with his victims, who include a female psychiatrist.
It ain’t the easy riders. When Beck’s sidekicks go to confront the bikers the young detective Oskar Bergman asks: “Do we need weapons?” his volatile ex-marine superior Gunvald Larsson sneers: “Hope springs eternal.” A ’tec who challenges a witness to a fistfight in a crowded nightclub? Breaking and entering? We expect him to provide good comedy value as the series progresses.
Beck’s appeal on the nation’s ‘Crimewatch’ show looks in retrospect to colleagues like a bad move, because if he too is a target the killer knows where he lives. He does; he sends him an anachronous gift – a C60 cassette tape of his latest victim whimpering from her coffin. This episode was made in 2009, by which time the tape format had long gone the way of the dinosaurs (more later). Smart move, though – sans fingerprints they were probably pretty untraceable, unlike an email IP address or a GPS mobile message.
Suffering from insomnia, Beck visits what is obviously Stockholm’s only pharmacy; it has also just served creepy beardy coffin-maker Peter Lind, whose initials appear on the wooden caskets. Sweden’s dispensing laws must be liberal indeed, as both seem to get restricted sedatives over the counter.
When Lind is found comatose in this own wood overcoat it looks like case closed. But Beck senses he’s a fall guy and invokes Morse by noodling over a literary quote from the killer in an answerphone message. He finds the source of the line ‘Adding sense to the punishment’, and extrapolates from victims’ identities that the killer must be schizophrenic Erik Stark, who was treated by the lady shrink, sent to prison (wrongfully) for a student’s murder by Runfelt, and cellmate to the biker. Predictably, Beck gets a surprise ketamine shot from an intruder in his flat, who obligingly removes his mask to reveal why he hides in shadows.
It’s up to timid Oskar (Mans Nathanaelson) to save the day. “Do we need weapons?” Yes Oskar, you surely do.
From what we see from this outing, Martin Beck is a methodical plodder who has clawed his way up through police ranks. Unlike his countryman Wallander, or even the phlegmatic Columbo, he doesn’t have the gene that allows him to read people. His is a collaborative style. He may share Wallander’s dysfunctional family background, and live to work (his daughter Inger, however, seems indulgent of his workaholic ways), but we see he has close relationships with his team – he is tactile with Lena Klingstrom (in a non-sexist way) and tolerates Larsson’s often inappropriate gallows humour.
In an un-Aristotelian way, Beck’s parts are greater than its sum. It is a prosaic but absorbing police procedural with solid, nuanced performances, notably Mikael Persbrandt as Larsson. It is lifted by occasionally deft camerawork – sparingly used tracking shots and smash cuts heighten the claustrophobic feeling that the characters are being monitored.
However, some of the shine is taken off by naff touches such as neighbours in Beck’s apartment block being set up as red herrings and the juvenile stylings of our antagonist. Dressing him like a cut-price Ghostface was pointless – a ski-mask would have done. The scene where the killer confronts the psychiatrist by her fridge riffs on 1996’s ‘Scream’, right down to the cat. By 2009 that movie – a spoof itself – had been spoofed many times. Oh well, RIP Wes Craven.
So here is the problem; updating source material. BBC Radio 4 has dramatised the 10-book Martin Beck series of novels written between 1965 and 1975 by husband-and-wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. And the tales have also been adapted as films between 1967 and 1994. By comparison Wallander first appeared in print in 1991. This TV version of Beck presumably needed updating for forensic pathology techniques, if nothing else, by the production team. But compared with the pace, framing and the snarky characterisations in ‘The Killing’ And ‘The Bridge’ it looks hopelessly dated.
The pathetic fallacies of open landscape and the dark that are so prevalent in Scandi drama are everywhere here – and such isolation all adds to the feeling of dread. Like most of continental Europe, Sweden, with a population of only 9.5 million, has literally more room than the UK – and its homes are far larger. More space to be stalked. Are Swedes isolationist by temperament as well as politically? Discuss.
But we do learn a bit about those health-conscious Swedes. Export of ‘snus’ – snuff to us Brits – is banned in the rest of the EU (Sweden used an opt-out), but is far more effective than vapeing as an aid to quit smoking and apparently is far less devastating to health – but it’s still highly addictive, as doomed Runfelt agrees with a petrol station shop assistant. Can’t get past the idea of brown snot, though.
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