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||Maj Sjöwall (1935-2020)|
Swedish writer and journalist, "the grandmother of Scandinavian crime writing," who created with her husband Per Wahlöö the detective character Martin Beck
and published widely translated novels of Beck and his colleagues at
the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm. According to the
authors' claim, the series was more popular in the United States and
France than in Sweden. The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F.
Keating selected Roseanna (1965) in 1987 for his list of the
one hundred best crime novels. Several of the books have been adapted
into screen. The Martin Beck novels prepared the ground for authors such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Liza Marklund.
"Elofsson was in great pain, and the front of his uniform was already soaked and smeared with blood. He could neither talk nor move, only observe. And still he was more dumfounded than afraid. How could this have happened? For twenty years he'd been driving around shouting and swearing, pushing, kicking, hitting people with his billy club, or slapping them with the flat side of his saber. He had always been the stronger, had always had the advantage of arms and might and justice against people who were weaponless and powerless and had no rights." (from Cop Killer, 1974)
Sjöwall was born in Stockholm, the daughter of Will
Sjöwall, the manager of a chain of hotels, and the former Margit
Trobäck. "I was rather wild," she once described her youth. At the age
of 21 she had an abortion. Sjöwall studied journalism and
graphics before finding employment as a reporter and art director at a
series of newspapers and magazines. From 1959 to 1961 she was an editor
with the publishing house Wahlström and Widstrad.
Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö met in 1961 while working for magazines
published by the same company; Maj Sjöwall for Idun and Per
Wahlöö for Folket i bild.
Wahlöö was a political journalist, who had been deported from General
Franco's Spain in 1957. Both Sjöwall and Wahlöö were members of the
Communist Party. Wahlöö was married,
Sjöwall was a single parent of a six-year-old daughter and already
twice divorced. They became lovers but never officially married. Their
carefully planned crime series was created in the
evenings, after their two sons, Tetz and Jens, had been put to bed.
At the time, there were no Swedish police procedurals, just amateur detectives. The project was aimed to reveal "how the social democrats were pushing the country in a more and more bourgeois and rightwing direction." Starting in 1965 from Roseanna which sold moderately well, their work ended ten years and ten books later with Terroristerna (1975).
Until 1969, the couple lived in Stockholm, but they kept
contact with the KRW (Kronkvist-Rooke-Wahlöö) group from Malmö, where
they lived and worked from 1969. From the beginning, the collaboration was seamless,
based on the journalistic experience and
style that demanded brevity, concision, and attention to detail. Both
writers were Marxists and admired the work of Dashiell Hammett and
Raymond Chandler. The first plot was invented on a canal trip from
Stockholm to Gothenburg. "There was an American woman on the boat,
beautiful, with dark hair, always standing alone. I caught Per looking
at her. 'Why don't we start the book by killing this woman?'" Sjöwall
According to Wahlöö, their intention was to "use the crime
novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized
and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type."
Of course, even in the 1960s, this kind of radicalism was not meant to
make the books more acceptable. "Fortunately
none of this has any bearing on the quality of the Martin Beck series
itself, which is not only unique in presenting a detailed and evolving
vision of police work from a definable political perspective but
consistently transcends the level of the average police procedural
thanks to a prevailing sense of unease which in the end seems as much
existential as ideological." (Micheal Dibdin in The Picador Book of Cime Writing,
With careful research and attention to authentic detail,
the series would function as a mirror of the Swedish society by
following ten years in the career of the Martin Beck, chief of the
National Homicide Squad. Beck would thus serve as the barometer of a
changing atmosphere, reflecting shifts in the political, economic,
The narrative model came from Ed McBain's
internationally acclaimed Eighty-seventh Precinct series. Some of them
they even translated into Swedish for PAN/Norstedts series in the late
Roseanna, The Man Who Went
Up in Smoke (1966), and The Man on the Balcony
(1967), the first three books, were
straightfoward police procedurals. They introduced the central
characters – solid, methodical detective Martin Beck with failing
marriage, ex-paratrooper Lennart Kollberg, a gourmet, who hates
violence and refuses to carry a gun, Gunvald Larsson, wildman and a
drop-out from high society, Einar Rönn from the rural north of Sweden –
he was Wahlöö's favorite figure – and patrolmen Kristiansson and Kvant,
whose activities usually lead to some kind of fiasco. Beck suffers from
insomnia, and he has troubles with his stomach; the pains go away when
he leaves his wife and her cooking. He joined the police
force in the mid-1940s. Beck met Inga, his future wife on a canoe tour
in 1951. After marriage they moved to Kungsholmen. They have two
children, but during the story their marriage dissolves. "The trouble
with you, Martin, is just that you've got the wrong job," says
Kollberg. "At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the
In Roseanna the body of a girl is discovered, but nothing is know of her. Eventually she is linked to Roseanna McGraw, an American, who never returned from her tour of Europe. Martin Beck and colleagues find a photograph in which Roseanna is accompanied by a man. Beck is convinced he is the killer. "Chance, too, is allowed to play a bigger role than most storytellers, those shapers of events to their own ends, would allow. This, once more, introduces an element of outside reality. So, as one puts the book down, one is apt to think: a good story, and interesting, but also, in the words of the newspaper advertisement, 'all human life is there'." (H.R.F. Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987)
Roseanna was not an immediate success. Many reviewers felt that its was too dark and brutal. Until The Story of a Crime series Swedish detective novels had been apolitical, conservative or liberal, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö managed to revive interest in a genre generally overlooked by leftist intellectuals. Moreover, readers were ready to accept their new approach, the introduction of political ideas as part of crime fiction. In Cop Killer (1974) Lennart Kollberg writes his resignation, because of his socialist world view. At the end of the series, Beck is deeply ambivalent about remaining a policeman, because he fears that he is contributing to the violent nature of Swedish society rather than preventing it.
The Laughing Policeman (1968), filmed by Stuart Rosenberg in 1973, and The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969), brought in the development of the series social themes and weak points of the Western society. Rosenberg's film was set in San Francisco instead of Stockholm and Malmö. Walter Matthau played a laconic detective named Jake Martin, who is solving a case in which all passengers in a bus are massacred by an unseen killer. "It's almost the kind of movie, indeed, to blast loose a detective-novel fan from Ross Macdonald," said Roger Ebert in his review. Swedish reviewers were unanimous in that the film had very little to do with the novel and there was little left of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's social criticism.
Bo Widerberg's screen adaptation of Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle (1971, The Abominable Man) from 1976, entitled Mannen på taket, was a great success. One of its highlights was a helicopter crash on the Odenplan metro station. Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt, who was best known as a comedian, was cast in the role of Martin Beck. Sjöwall herself had imagined him to be lean, looking like Gunnar Björnstrand or the young Henry Fonda, but Lindstedt was stockily built. In this film, Lindstedt realized his potential as a serious actor. Widerberg, who was not a Raymond Chandler fan, planned to continue with the third book in the series, The Man on the Balcony, but this production never went ahead. Widerberg accused Jörn Donner, the director of the Swedish Film Institute who had actually supported the idea, of putting him on a blacklist.
Noteworthy, the theme of
class conflict is not made explicit right from the onset, but in the final
volume, The Terrorists, where murder of the prime minister signals the collapse of the social
democratic welfare state. Police officers and criminals alike have nothing to lose but their
chains. The authors openly side with criminals-as-revolutionaries, finishing the whole series with the name "Marx". The Terrorists
was published after
Wahlöö's death in 1975, at the age of 48. Though a joint venture, this
volume was mostly written by Wahlöö, who was already very ill. After the murder of Olof Palme in the winter of 1986, Sjöwall
was frequently asked did she had any regrets for killing the
prime minister in the story. (The killer is a young girl.) She
felt no need to apologize, emphasizing the difference between
fiction and real life. Moreover, many people hated Palme.
Following Wahlöö's death, Sjöwall found it difficult to write novels. With Åke
Sjöwall she translated Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels into Swedish.
Following a long illness, Maj Sjöwall died on April 29, 2020.
Many of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's successors have adopted their critical approach of the abuses of state power, including Olov Svedelind, Kenneth Ahl (pseudonym of Lasse Strömstedt och Christer Dahl), Leif G.W. Persson, K. Arne Blom, Henning Mankell, and Stieg Larsson. Also the Chinese mystery writer Qiu Xiaolong, who has lived in the United States since the 1980s, has acknowledged his admiration of Martin Beck police mysteries.
Selected works with Per Wahlöö: