Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Weekly Lizard

In 1965, Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö published a novel called Roseanna. Unlike most detective novels of the time, Roseanna was strikingly realistic in its descriptions of police work—and of the bloody crimes that were being investigated. Even more shockingly, the book’s protagonist, Martin Beck, went about his job with a sense of duty that was almost…grim. All of this was by design. Sjöwall and Wahlöö had set out to write a series of ten novels that cast a light on Sweden’s social and economic issues. In doing so, they would revolutionize the detective novel and set the tone for the next generation of Nordic crime writers.

Wahlöö was born in 1926 in Göteborg, Sweden. He worked as an international journalist in the 1940s and 50s, a job that provided him with the opportunity to witness the political turmoil and economic disparities that simmered throughout postwar Europe. Wahlöö wrote several novels on his own, including the dystopian thrillers The Steel Spring and Murder on the Thirty-First Floor. Starring Chief Inspector Jensen, these books are set in a not-too-distant future, in an unknown country where corporations rule and the media has been whitewashed. By challenging the reader’s pre-conceived notions about the world, Wahlöö was able to push the boundaries of the thriller and make the threat of dystopia seem closer than ever.

In 1962, Wahlöö met Maj Sjöwall, a 27-year-old reporter and art director. Wahlöö, by then, was married with a child, and Sjöwall was twice-divorced with a child of her own. Although the two were attracted to each other, Sjöwall was uncomfortable pursuing a relationship while Wahlöö was still married. So, their relationship—and their partnership—became one of writing. Wahlöö was working on a novel, and, as Sjöwall remembered in a recent interview with the Guardian, the two collaborated via correspondence, each day leaving her an envelope with the work-in-progress, and a note suggesting what characters or storylines she might add. A year later, Wahlöö left his wife for Sjöwall, and the new couple began planning the series that would come to define them.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series had a radical goal. In ten books, the couple re-imagined the police procedural as a means by which to discuss and dissect political issues of the day. As the BBC noted in their “Nordic Noir” documentary, “The overtly political subtext of the books marked a radical first in Swedish crime fiction, and Martin Beck became the prototype for the classic Scandinavian detective.” In her conversation with the Guardian, Sjöwall recalled the mixed reception the books received, saying, “Little old ladies took the books back to the shop, complaining that they were awful, too realistic. Crime stories in those days would not describe a naked dead woman as we did. Or describe a policeman going to bed with his wife. But on the other hand, students loved them.”

Wahlöö died in 1975, just before the final book in the series (The Terrorists) was published. But the legacy that he and Sjöwall created together remains strong. The Martin Beck novels transformed detective fiction and influenced a generation of crime writers. “Artists stand on the shoulders of those who have come before,” commented Jo Nesbø in his introduction to the reissue of The Man on the Balcony. “Sjöwall and Wahlöö…have shoulders that can accommodate all of today’s crime writers…. [They] have shaped the genre and the reader’s expectations as to what crime fiction should be.” Writing in his introduction to the reissue of Roseanna, Henning Mankell agreed: “Anyone who writes about crime as a reflection of society has been inspired to some extent by what they wrote…. Sjöwall and Wahlöö broke with the hopelessly stereotyped character descriptions that were so prevalent. They showed people evolving right before the reader’s eyes.”