Viewers in the UK were treated to the Swedish crime drama Beck for the first time this evening on BBC4. This highly regarded series, starring Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt as Inspector Martin Beck and Detective Gunvald Larsson, has been running since 1997 and draws on characters from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s seminal ‘Martin Beck’ novels. The latter were published between 1965 and 1975 and are recognised as the forerunners to Henning Mankell’s ‘Wallander’ novels and countless other Scandi police procedurals foregrounding social issues.
A total of twenty-six Beck films were made between 1997 and 2010, with a new set of dramas airing in Scandinavia at the beginning of 2015. The episode we saw tonight – ‘Buried Alive’ (Levande begravd) – is number 26 from 2010. My review is below. It avoids major spoilers, but if you’d rather watch first then look away now.
The first thing to note about Beck is that it’s very different in tone to BBC4’s previous crime drama, the Italian Young Montalbano (sunshine, pasta and the odd murder).
Yes, fasten your seatbelts – this is Scandi Noir with a capital N.
While ‘Buried Alive’ does contain some moments of humour (look out for the guest appearance of a cucumber), the dominant atmosphere is dark, violent and extremely scary. The opening scene sets the tone for the whole episode: public prosecutor Annika Runfelt is shown being abducted late at night; her body is found the following morning in a coffin that has been buried in the sandpit of a children’s playground. The main suspect is the leader of a notorious motorcycle gang, but it soon becomes clear that the solution is going to be far more complicated…
While the plot contained elements I’m not usually keen on (high levels of violence, a borderline sadistic focus on the suffering of the victims and a fair old dollop of melodrama), it was kept grounded by the portrayal of the police team’s methodical investigation and by the level-headed, intelligent presence of Inspector Beck. The dynamic between him and his police colleagues Gunvald Larsson (tough guy), Lena Klingström (experienced and practical) and Oskar Bergman (nervous rookie) was very well-drawn, and it’s this that will bring me back next week rather than the plot, which wore its original ‘season finale thriller’ status rather too obviously for my liking. I’m hoping that the next episode will be a little calmer and closer to the police procedural roots of the Beck novels.
Nonetheless, a promising start, not least because one of the key bits of investigation was carried out in a bookshop. I also found myself rooting strongly for Beck after less than an hour and a half of his company, which is a very good sign, given that we are joining the series such a long way in.
Next week’s episode is called ‘Room 302’ (Rum 302). In it, Beck’s team is called to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in Room 302 of Hotel Stureplan in Stockholm. This episode is the first of the Beck dramas that aired at the beginning of 2015 (number 27 overall).
UPDATE: I’ve just watched the ‘Room 302’ and it was excellent. Made five years after ‘Buried Alive’, it feels like a reboot that properly honours the police procedural roots of the novels. The storyline is plausible and nuanced, and both Beck and Larsson get a real chance to shine – great acting all round. Good to see and I look forward to the other episodes very much.
For those interested in the original ‘Martin Beck’ novels, there are further details over at Crime Fiction Lover. Radio 4 also dramatised the series a little while back (hopefully these will be repeated soon). You can hear short clips over on the BBC Radio 4 website.
Please be aware that there are a few (minor) spoilers in the comments below 🙂