BBC FOUR are re-showing series 5 of the Beck procedural, but with a bonus – the second of the two-episode series 4 as an appetite-whetter. It’s at first glance an odd choice, as Buried Alive dates back to 2010 but in many ways I think it’s quite inspired.
It’s nostalgic, as a viewer, to be reminded of a time when a criminal could quite reasonably expect a detective’s home to be equipped with a cassette player (even more weirdly, Martin’s model would have been more at home in a 1970s teenager’s bedroom than in a middle-class, middle-aged man-cave), and when wanting to track down a particular phrase occasioned a walk to a bookshop rather than an internet search.
On the other hand, the episode does introduce many of the main characters rather well. Although the new viewer meets Lena only for this episode, the dynamic between her, Martin and Gunvald shows the tone between these long-established colleagues. We recognise Martin as the imaginative one, Lena as the brains and Gunvald as the muscle, and the ways in which they rely on, and trust, each other.
Further, this is the last episode by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind. This duo had done more to develop the world of Beck than anyone since the original pair of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and while their cinematic creations have not had the cultural impact of the literary productions, they recruited a sizeable and loyal community of fans, and the long Börjlind era helps us chart changes in Swedish society and also perhaps in Sweden’s view of itself.
This is an episode that has all the tension and claustrophobia that are hallmarks of the series, but there are moments when we seem to be crossing into horror-slash-camp, which has no place in a police procedural. Yes, avoiding cliché becomes harder and harder as a series goes on: everything’s been done before – even the old attack-from-the-back-of-the-car number, and especially the oh-we-don’t-know-the-motive-but-does-a-killer-have-to-have-a-motive conversation – but the scene in which the man in the mask suddenly emerges from behind the fridge door seems particularly derivative.
Perhaps the problem is that the criminal seems not to be able to make up his mind: he takes the trouble to point out that his is a job of revenge (not that anyone bar Beck really notices this) but simultaneously tries to frame one of his victims. The latter might have worked but the egotistical need to explain is his downfall, as it is for fictional baddies through the ages. By the time he goes after Beck himself he must realise that he’s, er, digging his own grave.
Probably the best part of this episode is the making of Oskar Bergman, the rookie whose exposition helps the viewer but causes his colleagues’ eyes to roll. He is utterly without guile and is a child operating in an adult’s world. His final scene makes us feel proud of him; though it will take a while before we could think of him as an equal to Gunvald or Lena, it’s great to see some character development in real time.
Speaking of Lena, I’m delighted to get closure from the 1997 episode, Trails in Darkness, which has not so far made it to BBC FOUR. Lena and Martin are dating and have just left for what Martin regards as a much-needed holiday, when bodies start piling up on the metro. Gunvald can’t handle the case, and Lena forces Martin to cancel the holiday. I’d never really forgiven her, but here, in her last appearance on the force, Martin cancels her leave, she smiles and we move on.
Finally, Stockholm has some great bookshops but should you be in the area, the store featured in this episode is well worth a visit. Tell them Martin Beck sent you.