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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Maj Sjöwall (1935-2020)


Swedish writer and journalist, "the grandmother of Scandinavian crime writing", who published with her husband Per Wahlöö ten novels about the detective character Martin Beck and his colleagues at the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm. According to Maj Sjöwall, the series, a dissection of capitalist society, was more popular in the United States and France than in Sweden. The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating selected the first volume, Roseanna (1965), in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime & mystery novels. All of the Martin Beck books have been filmed. The novels prepared the ground for authors such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Liza Marklund.

"I still recall the first time I read Cop Killer. Like Maj and Per's other detective novels, it has been with me for as long as I can remember. The Martin Beck series is part of my childhood, my adolescence, the way I relate to Sweden and to reality." ('Introduction' by Liza Marklund, in Cop Killer: A Martin Beck Mystery by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, 2010, p. ix)

Maj Sjöwall was born in Stockholm, the daughter of Will Sjöwall, the manager of a chain of hotels, and the former Margit Trobäck. The family lived in an apartment at the Hotel Gillet. When Sjöwall was ten, they movend to Kungholmen. From early on, she was a book worm, reading Selma Lagerlöf, Elin Wägner, Maxim Gorky, Maria Lang, and Stieg Trenter. She also began writing poetry and short stories, one of which appeared anonymously in the magazine Fick Journalen.

"I was rather wild," Sjöwall once described her youth. ('The Queen of Crime' by Louise France, The Guardian, 22 November, 2009) 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, Lena, 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 literary venture was aimed to reveal "how the social democrats were pushing the country in a more and more bourgeois and rightwing direction." ('Sweden's Crime Writers Too Interested in Love, Says Maj Sjöwall' by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, 14 August, 2013) Starting in 1965 from Roseanna, Sjöwall and Wahlöö 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 suggested. ('The Queen of Crime' by Louise France, The Guardian, 22 November, 2009)

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." ('Wahlöö, Per (1926-75 and Maj Sjövall (1935-)' by Bo Lundin, in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, second edition, edited by John M. Reilly, 1985, p. 947)

Of course, even in the 1960s, this kind of radicalism did not boost the sales of the books. "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." (The Picador Book of Cime Writing by Michael Dibdin, 1993, p. 102) The general plan of Sjöwall and Wahlöö was that based on meticulous research and authentic details, the series would mirror the Swedish society. Martin Beck, his career in the National Homicide Squad, would act as the barometer of the times, reflecting changes in the political, economic, social climate.

The narrative model came from Ed McBain's internationally acclaimed Eighty-seventh Precinct series. Some of them the couple even translated into Swedish for PAN/Norstedts series in the late 1960s.

The first three novels, Roseanna, a story of rape-murder of an American girl, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966), which takes place mostly in the cold war Budapest, and The Man on the Balcony (1967), were straightforward police procedural novels, written in reportal, spare style: "On the table were three empty vermouth bottles, a soft-drink bottle and two coffee cups, among other things. The ash tray had been turned upside down and among the cigarette butts, bottle tops and dead matches lay a few dirty sugar lumps, a small penknife with its blades open, and a piece of sausage. A third coffee cup had fallen to the floor and had broken. Face down on the word linoleum, between the table and the bed, lay a dead body. (The Man Who Went Up in a Smoke, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, 2006, pp. 3-4)

These first novels introduced the central characters – the 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 had 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.

Roseanna was not an immediate success. Some reviewers felt that the novel was too dark and brutal, but its publication in English translation in 1967 sparked the interest of a worldwide audience. In the story 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 his colleagues find a photograph in which Roseanna is accompanied by an unknown 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'." ('Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: Roseanna,' in Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating, 1987, p. 138)

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. Readers were ready to accept their new approach, the introduction of political issues (glimpses of gentle humour) as part of crime fiction. In Cop Killer (1974) Lennart Kollberg, a man with strong views, writes his resignation: he is a socialist, and refuses to support the oppressive system any longer. The suspected cop killer of the title, a teenager in a stolen car, is chased across Sweden.

At the end of the series, Beck plays a game called "crosswords" with Kollberg, who says: "The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you've got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system." (The Terrorists, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, 2010, p. 280)

The Laughing Policeman (1968), filmed by Stuart Rosenberg in 1973, and The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969), brought in the development of the series more social themes and weak points of the Western society. "I found little or nothing in the novel that could be called tub-thumping propaganda. Instead, I came across a few rather muted and humane reflections on those laudable intentions which somehow had failed to materialize." ('Introduction' by Colin Dexter, in The Fire Engine that Disappeared, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, 2007, p. viii)

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. ('The Laughing Policeman' by Roger Ebert, December 24, 1973, 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 analysis. 

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, of putting him on a blacklist. However, he actually supported the idea: "Det är värt att notera att Jörn Donner gjorde sig mödan att själv kontakta Olle Hellbom, och Donner blev överraskad över att SF var så avvisande. Donner ansträngde sig ganske inte på något uppseendeväckande sätt men det var ändå ett försök att se om det kunde bli en Mannen på balkongen-film." (Höggradigt jävla excentrisk: En biografi över Bo Widerberg by Mårten Blomkvist, 2011)

Noteworthy, the authors did not give full attention to theme of class conflict  right from the beginning, but its weight grew step-by-step, in the context of social ills and problems the novel exposed. In the final volume, The Terrorists, the murder of the prime minister signals the decline of the social democratic welfare state. Sjöwall and Wahlöö openly side with Rebecka Lind, "the novel's holy fool and sacrifical lamb, cast adrift by a society that proclaims to care for her then preys upon her as soon as her isolation leads to financial need." ('Introduction' by Denis Lehane, The Terrorists, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, 2012, p. vii) Rebecka is the killer of the book's Swedish prime minister. Later she commits suicide. The whole series is finished 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. She felt no need to apologize, emphasizing the difference between fiction and real life. Many far-right people in Sweden 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. Sjöwall received the Lenin Award in 2013 (the name was changed to the Jan Myrdal Library's big prize in 2016). Following a long illness, Maj Sjöwall died on April 29, 2020.

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, and others. 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.

For further reading: 'Roman om en forbrydelse' - Sjöwall/Wahlöö's verk og virkelighed by Ejgil Søholm (1976); Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, edited by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976); 'The Police in Society: The Novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö' by Frank Occhiogrosso, in The Armchair Detective, no. 2 (1979); The Police Procedural by George Dove (1982); Lystmord, edited by Jørgen Holmgaard and Bo Tao Michaëlis (1984); Polemical Pulps by J. Kenneth Van Dover (1993); 'Wahlöö, Per (1926-75 and Maj Sjövall (1935-)' by Bo Lundin, in Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, second edition, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); 'Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: Roseanna,' in Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); 'Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö' by Nancy C. Mellerski and Robert P. Winston, in Mystery and Suspense Writers, edited by Robin W. Winks (1998); 'Sjöwall, Maj (b. 1935) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975' by J.K. Van Dover, in Whodunit?: A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert (2003); 'Introduction' by Colin Dexter, in The Fire Engine that Disappeared: A Martin Beck Mystery by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (2007); 'Introduction' by Liza Marklund, in Cop Killer: A Martin Beck Mystery by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (2010); 'Introduction' by Dennis Lehane, The Terrorists: A Martin Beck Novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (2010); 'From National Authority to Urban Underbelly: Negotiations of Power in Stockholm Crime Fiction' by Kerstin Bergman, in Crime Fiction in the City: Capital Crimes, edited by Lucy Andrew and Catherine Phelps (2013); Swedish Cops: From Sjöwall & Wahlöö to Stieg Larsson by Michael Tapper (2014); Swedish Marxist Noir: The Dark Wave of Crime Writers and the Influence of Raymond Chandler by Per Hellgren (2019); Boken om Beck: och Sjöwall Wahlöö och tiden som for by Johan Erlandsson (2020); Dictionnaire Sjöwall et Wahlöö: les pionniers du polar nordique by Yann Liotard (2020); Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery by Wendy Lesser (2020) - Note: The Laughing Policeman won the best novel Edgar Award in 1971 from the Mystery Writers of America.  See also: Lawrence Treat, the creator of modern police procedural novels.

Selected works with Per Wahlöö:

  • Roseanna, 1965
    - Roseanna (translated by Lois Roth, 1967)
    - Roseanna: romaani rikoksesta (suom. Kari Jalonen, 1969)
    - film adaptations: 1967, prod. Independent film, dir. Hans Abramson, starring Keve Hjelm (as Martin Beck), Hans Ernback, Tor Isedal, Gio Petré, Hans Bendrik; 1993, prod. Nordisk Film- & TV-Fond, Rialto Film, Svensk Filmindustri (SF), dir. Daniel Alfredson, starring Gösta Ekman (as Beck), Kjell Bergqvist, Rolf Lassgård, Anna Helena Bergendal
  • Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966
    - The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (translated by Joan Tate, 1969)
    - Mies joka hävisi savuna ilmaan (suom. Kari Jalonen, 1967)
    - film adaptation: Mann, der sich in Luft auflöste, 1980, prod. Andre Libik, Europa Film, Mafilm 'Dialog' Studio, dir. Péter Bacsó, starring Derek Jacobi (as Martin Beck), Judy Winter, Tomas Bolme, Lasse Strömstedt, Sándor Szabó
  • Mannen på balkongen, 1967
    - The Man on the Balcony (translated by Alan Blair, 1968)
    - Mies parvekkeella (suom. Margit Salmenoja, 1980)
    - film adaptation: Mannen på balkongen, 1993, prod. Nordisk Film- & TV-Fond, Rialto Film, Svensk Filmindustri (SF), dir. by Daniel Alfredson, starring Gösta Ekman (as Martin Beck),  Kjell Bergqvist, Rolf Lassgård, Niklas Hjulström, Bernt Ström
  • Den skrattande polisen, 1968
    - The Laughing Policeman (translated by Alan Blair, 1970)
    - Bussimurha (suom. Kari Jalonen, 1972)
    - film adaptation in 1973, prod. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, dir. by Stuart Rosenberg, starring Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett Jr., Albert Paulsen. Note: the locale was shifted from Sweden to San Francisco when it was filmed.
  • Brandbilen som försvann, 1969
    - The Fire Engine That Disappeared (translated by Joan Tate, 1970)
    - Kadonnut paloauto (suom. Margit Salmenoja, 1980)
    - film adaptation: 1993, prod. Nordisk Film- & TV-Fond, RTL, Rialto Film, dir. by Hajo Gies, starring Gösta Ekman (as Martin Beck), Kjell Bergqvist, Rolf Lassgård, Niklas Hjulström, Holger Kunkel
  • Polis, polis, potatismos!, 1970
    - Murder at the Savoy (translated by Amy and Ken Knoespel, 1971)
    - Missä viipyy poliisi (suom. Marja-Riitta Ritanoro ja Kari Jalonen, 1974)
    - films: Nezakonchennyy uzhin, 1980, dir. Janis Streics, starring Romualds Ancans (as Martin Beck), Ingrid Andrina, Lilita Berzina, Ivars Kalnis; 1993, prod. Nordisk Film- & TV-Fond, Rialto Film, Svensk Filmindustri (SF) dir. Per Berglund, starring Gösta Ekman, Kjell Bergqvist and Rolf Lassgård  
  • Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle, 1971
    - The Abominable Man (translated by Thomas Teal, 1972)
    - Komisario Beck tähtäimessä (suom. Marja-Riitta Ritanoro ja Kari Jalonen, 1974)
    - film adaptation: Mannen på taket, 1976, prod. Svensk Filmindustri (SF), Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI), dir. by Bo Widerberg, starring Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt, Sven Wollter, Thomas Hellberg, Håkan Serner, Ingvar Hirdwall 
  • Det slutna rummet, 1972
    - The Locked Room (translated by Paul Britten Austin, 1973)
    - Suljettu huone (suom. Kari Jalonen)
    - film adaptation: De gesloten kamer, 1993, prod. Filmcase, Prime Time, dir. by Jacob Bijl, starring Jan Decleir (as Martin Beck), Els Dottermans, Warre Borgmans, Jakob Beks
  • Polismördaren, 1974
    - Cop Killer (translated by Thomas Teal, 1975; introduction by Liza Marklund, 2010)
    - Poliisimurha (suom. Kari Jalonen, 1978)
    - film adaptation in 1993, prod. Rialto Film, Svensk Filmindustri (SF), Sveriges Television (SVT), dir. by Peter Keglevic, starring Gösta Ekman (as Martin Beck), Kjell Bergqvist, Rolf Lassgård, Tomas Norström, Johan Widerberg 
  • Terroristerna, 1975
    - The Terrorists (translated by Joan Tate, 1976)
    - Terroristit (suom. Margit Salmenoja, 1980)
    - film adaptation: Stockholm Marathon, 1993, prod. Rialto Film, Svensk Filmindustri (SF), Sveriges Television (SVT), dir. by Peter Keglevic, starring Gösta Ekman (as Martin Beck), Kjell Bergqvist, Rolf Lassgård, Niklas Hjulström, Corinna Harfouch
  • Sista resan och andra berättelser, 2007
  • Roseanna, 2008 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 1; translated from the Swedish by Lois Roth; with a new introduction by Henning Mankell)
  • The Man Who Went up in Smoke, 2008 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 2; translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate; with an introduction by Val McDermid)
  • The Man on the Balcony, 2009 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 3; translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair; with an introduction by Jo Nesbø)
  • The Laughing Policeman, 2009 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 4; translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair; introduction by Jonathan Franzen)
  • The Fire Engine That Disappeared, 2009 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 5; translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate; with an introduction by Colin Dexter)
  • Murder at the Savoy, 2009 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 6; translated from the Swedish by Amy Knoespel; introduction by Arne Dahl)
  • The Abominable Man, 2009 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 7; translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal; with an introduction by Jens Lapidus)
  • The Locked Room, 2009 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 8; translated from the Swedish by Paul Britten Austin; with an introduction by Michael Connelly)
  • Cop Killer, 2010 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 9; translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal; introduction by Liza Marklund)
  • The Terrorists, 2010 (A Martin Beck Mystery: 10; translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate; introduction by Dennis Lehane)

Other works:

  • Kvinnan som liknade Greta Garbo (with Tomas Ross), 1990
    - Nainen joka muistutti Greta Garboa (suom. Tarmo Haarala, 1991)
  • Sista resan och andra berättelser, 2007

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