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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 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)

Maj 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 suggested.

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, 1993) 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, social climate.

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 1960s.

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 wrong system."

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.

For further reading: Spårhundarna by Bo Lundin (1973); 'Roman om en forbrydelse' - Sjöwall/Wahlöö's verk og virkelighed by Ejgil Søholm (1976); Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, ed. 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, ed. by Jørgen Holmgaard and Bo Tao Michaëlis (1984); Polemical Pulps by J. Kenneth Van Dover (1993); 'Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö' by Nancy C. Mellerski and Robert P. Winston, in Mystery and Suspense Writers, ed. 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); Höggradigt jävla excentrisk by Mårten Blomkvist, pp. 327-371 (2011); '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) - 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. 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 (tr. Thomas Teal, 1975)
    - 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 (tr. 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

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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