By April 30, 2020 0 Comments Read More →

Remembering Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck Novels

Fans of Scandinavian crime fans were hit with some very sad news yesterday upon learning of the death, at 84, of Maj Sjöwall, coauthor with Per Wahlöö, of the vastly influential Martin Beck series of police procedurals. Set in Stockholm from 1965 through 1975, the series is widely regarded as the progenitor of what we now call Scandinavian noir. Before Henning Mankell, before Stieg Larsson, before Jo Nesbø, there were Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Back in 2007, I wrote a column called “It Began with Beck.” The following draws from what I said then.

The husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were on the case 30 years before Henning Mankell, and the hero of their groundbreaking 10-novel police procedural series, Detective Inspector Martin Beck, is unquestionably godfather to Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and all the other twenty-first-century Scandinavian sleuths. Both committed to radical politics, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out “to use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of an ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.” The 10-novel sequence began in 1965 with Roseanna and continued through 1975, when the finale, The Terrorists, was published shortly after Wahlöö’s death. Unlike most European crime fiction of the time, the series was immediately translated into English and met with widespread critical acclaim in the U.S.—surprising given the political emphasis (the last word in the series is, symbolically, “Marx”).

I first read the Martin Beck books in the late 1970s and found them unlike any other crime fiction of the time, with the exception of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, to which the Beck novels, also in the “station house” tradition and portraying the lives and careers of a squad of homicide detectives, are clearly indebted. But Sjöwall and Wahlöö are more interested in the inner lives of their characters than McBain, and Beck is a far more vulnerable figure than McBain’s Steve Carella or any of the other hard-boiled heroes of that era. And, of course, the overtly left-wing point of view set the Beck series apart while giving it something in common with the similarly inclined younger readers of the sixties generation.

“The world we live in today is simply Martin Beck’s world writ large.”

But how does Martin Beck hold up today, when vulnerability has become a common character trait among European detectives and when the idea of communism as a solution to society’s ills seems naive at best? I decided to find out and reread three Beck novels, The Laughing Policeman, The Fire Engine That Disappeared, and The Terrorists. Not only do they hold up just fine, they also seem remarkably contemporary. In The Laughing Policeman, about the seemingly motiveless mass murder of the riders on a Stockholm bus, one of Beck’s detectives exclaims, “Are there no limits?” The same scene is replayed throughout Mankell’s Faceless Killers, after the murder of an elderly farm couple in remote Ystad unleashes an ugly wave of racist hate. The contemporary Scandinavian crime novel is defined by this sense that the old rules no longer apply, and while good cops might “solve” an individual crime, they are powerless to stop the slide of society into hate-fueled chaos. These are familiar ideas today, of course, and have worked their way into all aspects of popular culture. But the theme has even greater resonance in Scandinavian fiction because it plays against our image of the region as somehow beyond all that—neutral in war, liberal in sex, tolerant in society. Henning Mankell burst that bubble once and for all in the nineties, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö were posting Danger! signs before many of today’s Mankell fans even knew how to read.

But what of the politics? Shouldn’t a pair of committed socialists railing against capitalist injustice seem, well . . . quaint today? Sjöwall and Wahlöö might seem exactly that if they were sitting in your living room and espousing a Communist agenda. But in their Martin Beck novels, they show rather than tell, and what they show seems like everyday life to today’s reader. We might not draw the conclusions the authors drew about how to fix the problems of society, but we certainly recognize those problems in all their prickly detail. Bureaucracy run amok, for example. It hardly sounds like Communist propaganda to describe a world where most institutions are mired in their own rule-making and incompetence and where government leaders are, well . . . shall we just say not very bright. The world we live in today is simply Martin Beck’s world writ large.

It’s no wonder that when Mankell’s Faceless Killers appeared in 1997, it came with a blurb from Maj Sjöwall.

About the Author:

After more than 30 years at Booklist, editor and publisher Bill Ott continues to edit the crime fiction section of the magazine and still delights in discovering new hard-boiled writers. Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Bill.

Post a Comment