Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Friday Jul 24 2009
by Jack Bumsted

When most crime fiction fans think of the beginnings of the Scandinavian mystery writing which has become so popular in the 21st century, they cast their thoughts back to the early 1990s, when Henning Mankell was first published in English and was quickly followed by Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Actually, the Nordic crime novel had its origins a generation earlier, with the publication in 1965 of Roseanna, by the wife and husband team of Swedish journalists Maj Sjowall (1935-) and Per Wahloo (1926-1975).

Per Wahloo was born in Goteborg and was a successful magazine editor before shifting to full-time writing (his life in an eerie number of ways parallels that of Steig Larsson).  In 1961 he met the Stockholm-born poet and journalist Maj Sjowall.  The two apparently first became attracted to each other because of an interest in mystery novels; they married in 1962, and the first of their collaborative novels appeared in 1965, based in part on the police procedural books of Ed McBain in the 87th precinct series.

To point out their debt to McBain is in many ways unfair to the Swedes, and misses the point, since they greatly modified his police concept in a variety of innovative ways.  In the first place, Sjowall and Wahloo were committed Marxists who intended to use the crime fiction format as a platform for a left-wing critique of Swedish society.  It is hard to think of many successful crime novels that have any deliberate social criticism built into them, and even harder to list socially critical novels that have a left-wing orientation. Most crime fiction writers have a distinctly right-wing conservative bent, usually implicit rather than explicit.  The conservatism of the British Queens of Crime, for example, is almost legendary; their writing is based on the notion that the crime is an offense to the social order that needs to be resolved and excised. The conservatism of the American private eye school was quite different from the Queens but still palpable; it was based on the sense of the corruption of modern society and the need for the detective to act as a vigilante in order to bring justice (or wreak vengeance) on the criminals.  The private eyes often had trouble distinguishing between gangsters and politicians, and operated in a world of moral relativism.
Not only did the Swedish couple have a social goal in mind, but they also had a plan.  They sketched out a ten-volume series in advance of writing it, planning to produce one book a year for ten years.  The books would not only document the deterioration of public life in modern Sweden but also the daily realities of the life of the law enforcers in the nation.  To a considerable extent, their critique of the public sphere involved an attack on the excesses and absurdities of bureaucracy in modern life.  As a result, police procedure is often savagely satirized, and much of the humour of the series revolves around police incompetence.   

The deliberate focus on the lives of the policemen led to a third innovation, perhaps the most important of all. Most police procedurals written before the Swedes concentrated on the crime and the detection, rather than on the detective or detectives.  The Queens of Crime had been so successfully popular partly because they had given their detectives private lives, but many of their successors had forgotten about this important point.  By the 1960s there was a sharp distinction between crime fiction focused on characters, usually amateur detectives and sometimes private investigators, and writing that concentrated on cops and detection.  There was a reason that some books were called “police procedurals”. Sjowall and Wahloo introduced the concept of the backstory into tales of criminal investigation.  This was particularly the case with their principal policeman, Martin Beck, who began the series in a depressed and unsatisfied state of mind, with an unhappy marriage to an unsuitable (but hardly intrinsically awful) partner. By the end of the series, Beck had separated and divorced his wife, and begun a relationship with another woman. Other cops he worked with had their own problems.  

The first five books in the series are quite different from the second five. The first five are basically crime fiction, with the social criticism, while present, kept well under control.  The sixth novel, Murder at the Savoy, was quite different. The crime was the assassination of a powerful Swedish industrialist, who turns out to be one of the worst criminals imaginable. This book offers the writing team the opportunity to castigate capitalism and capitalists, a critique continued unremittingly for the remainder of the series.  There is a curious similarity between the social

stance in these five volumes and in the American hard-boiled tradition.

The series was finished shortly before Wahloo’s death, and Sjowall has written little since.  Despite their popularity and critical acclaim at the time, the books were gradually allowed to go out of print, although they are currently being reprinted, chiefly – one suspects – as a consequence of the public enthusiasm for Scandinavian crime writing over the past few years.

Titles in the series:
Roseanna (1965)
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)
The Man on the Balcony (1967)
The Laughing Policeman (1968)
The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)
Murder at the Savoy (1970)
The Abominable Man (1971)
The Locked Room (1972)
Cop Killer (1974)
The Terrorists (1975)

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