‘Parents’ of Nordic crime – Sjowall, Wahloo and the Martin Beck series

By Vikas Datta, IANS,

Browse through the crime fiction section of any bookshop or online store and, apart from American and British writers, the largest presence will be of authors from the Scandinavian region.

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Henning Mankell, Hakan Nesser, Helene Tursten, Liza Marklund, Stieg Larsson, Leif G.W. Persson, Camilla Lackberg (all Swedish), Arnaldur Indridason, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (both Icelandic), Anne Holt, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo and K.O. Dahl (all Norwegian), Jussi Adler-Olsen and Peter Høeg (Danish), Jarkko Sipila, Leena Lehtolainen, and Tapani Bagge (Finnish) would be familiar names to those partial to the genre.

The success of “Nordic crime” – as the works of these writers has collectively been called – owes much to the popularity of the works of a pair of Swedish authors who defined the genre and gave it its enduring characteristics.

Maj Sjowall (1935) and Per Wahloo’s (1926-75) 10-part series of police procedurals have, as their protagonists, a number of melancholic, self-questioning policemen with largely dismal personal lives dealing with the dark undercurrents of their country’s overtly idyllic and equitable society. These motifs still permeate all manifestations of Nordic crime almost four decades after the last of the series appeared in 1975.

Titled the “Martin Beck series” after their lead character, it appeared between 1965 and 1975 – ending only with the death of Wahloo – and can be said to mark a paradigm shift in detective fiction.

Not only did the Martin Beck works strengthen the genre of police procedurals – which until then had only been seen in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series and, to some extent, in George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels – but they broadened the focus from individual aberration to the shortcomings and moral decay in an apparently “perfect” society.

But dogged police work does solve crime and ensure justice – of sorts. Sjolwall and Wahloo’s oeuvre, dealing with psychopaths and pornographers, drunkards and drug addicts, murderers and muggers, is bleak but never hopeless, and even darkly comic in part.

Let’s revisit the series and some of its characters.

The first was ‘Roseanna’ (1965), in which Beck, his jovial and stout colleague Lennart Kollberg and others struggle to solve the murder of an unidentified woman whose body, bearing marks of sexual assault, is found in a canal in south Sweden.

Persistent police work ascertains her identity and helps to zero in on a suspect, arrested after a sting operation, deemed ethically dubious by Beck, not to mention deadly for the decoy undercover policewoman.

‘The Man Who Went Up in Smoke’ (1966) was the next and involved the increasingly morose Beck making a trip to then communist Hungary in search of a missing journalist before the solution is found closer home.

‘The Man on the Balcony’ (1967) is the chilling tale of a race against time – as the body count mounts – to catch a murderous paedophile, with only a mugger and a three-year-old child as witnesses.

The book introduces the physically formidable but mannerless Gunvald Larsson and the rustic Einar Ronn as well as a pair of patrolmen — Kristiansson and Kvant — whose appearance provides comic relief.

Frequently found in lists of the best police procedurals, ‘The Laughing Policeman’ (1968) sees the team grappling with the apparently senseless massacre of random bus passengers, including a policeman. It is followed by ‘The Fire Engine Which Disappeared’ (1969), where an accident turns out to be a carefully planned murder, and ‘Murder at the Savoy’ (1970), where Beck has to solve the murder of a prominent businessman despite his distaste at the victim’s activities.

‘The Abominable Man’ (1971) sees the murder of a brutal policeman in hospital and as the case is solved, the team has to deal with a deranged sniper who kills several people, including patrolman Kvant, and injures Beck.

‘The Locked Room’ (1972) is a hard-hitting attack on the incompetent functioning of the Swedish police and courts. Kollberg and Larsson are forced to join a special anti-robbery team headed by an ambitious prosecutor, while a recuperating Beck is tasked with solving a ‘locked room’ murder. In the end, a hardened criminal walks free for a heinous crime but gets convicted and sentenced to a life term for one he is innocent of.

‘Cop Killer’ (1973) sees the probe into the disappearance of a woman transform into a relentless manhunt for a pair of teenaged burglars, who fatally injure a policeman in a firefight, before both cases are dealt with. The penultimate book also sees a disillusioned Kollberg resign from the force.

Left incomplete by Wahloo’s death, ‘The Terrorists’ (1975) deals with the steadily growing menace of terrorism, which was then beginning to figure in the headlines, while showing the Swedish state at its most incompetent and brutal, and the global resentment against America’s wars – in this case, in Vietnam.

Never out of print and easily available in India, the Sjowall-Wahloo series is a thoughtful but engaging read as it chronicles the stresses of society and in the life of those tasked to maintain law and order.

(16.02.2014 – Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])