Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Martin Beck Mysteries

My education in Scandinavian crime fiction continues! After I expressed my doubts about Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, I received some very helpful advice in the comments thread. In particular, Litlove suggested the Wallander books participate in a peculiarly European mood of melancholia (about which, she rightly inferred, I am largely ignorant) and a literary tradition of what she, um, invitingly described as “ugly, grinding prose, empty, bleak, futile.” And Dorian, who added the nice term “effaced personality” to our conversation about how Wallander is characterized, noted that Mankell’s series has an important antecedent in the Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. If I had been reading Mankell solely for pleasure, I might not have felt obligated to do the extra work of adjusting my reading framework to take these contexts into account, even though in principle I agree that good reading requires situating the book appropriately. I was reading Mankell in part as a professional, though, so I felt I did need to try a little harder to understand what he was up to–and boy, am I glad I did, not just as a teacher/scholar but as a reader. Three books into the Martin Beck series, I am thoroughly enjoying them, and I’m already feeling as if I will read Mankell much better (more aptly, more appreciatively) when I turn to The Fifth Woman, which is waiting here on my desk.

Why am I liking the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books so much better than Faceless Killers? One likely answer is that I’ve already fine-tuned my expectations, so that the features they share with Mankell’s first Wallander novel are more familiar and comfortable. Among these I would include the bleak (grinding, empty, futile) atmosphere–including both the literal atmosphere of cold, wet, miserable winter (as Jonathan Franzen says in his introduction to The Laughing Policeman, the “weather inevitably sucks”) but also the moral and emotional atmosphere, which is grim in a resigned, routine way. There’s also the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting characteristic of a police procedural, where every lead has to be laboriously pursued, every interview methodically conducted. No snazzy locked-room mysteries, these, no death-by-icicle or orangutang, no brilliant ratiocination leading up to a triumphant revelation scene. In these books, crime is a sordid business, no matter which side of the law you are on. No wonder everyone drinks so much–or tries to (in the Beck books at least, the more you are looking forward to your aquavit, the more likely it is the phone will ring and tear you away from it).

To some extent, I would say too that the prose in the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books has the same somewhat clunky quality I objected to Faceless Killers. Those of us who know no Swedish (I’m guessing that covers all readers of this blog!) can’t know how far this is an effect of translation, of trying to capture the cadence of another language in English. There are some tics in the Beck books that do suggest that there’s something deliberate about it, something purposefully exotic, if you like. One small detail that stands out for me is the recurrent reference to ‘Martin Beck’ where I would expect the surname alone, e.g. “Martin Beck looked disbelievingly at Kollberg,” 200 pages in. That’s just the tiniest little bit jarring, as you read along; it lets you know you aren’t quite on your home turf. But more generally, I found Faceless Killers flat, whereas I am finding the Beck books dry–in a good way. They are almost as tersely declarative, but there’s a momentum to the language that I enjoy, and also there’s a wonderful streak of humor, sometimes sardonic, other times more flat-out comical (as with the two beat cops Kvant and Kristiansson–“Ask a policeman,” they helpfully tell a confused woman who asks them for directions).

I haven’t yet seen quite the scope of social criticism attributed to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the prefaces provided to my editions–one by Mankell himself, another by Val McDermid, another, as I mentioned, by Franzen. Franzen calls the series “a ten-volume portrait of a corrupt modern society; Mankell says “the authors had a radical purpose in mind … to use crime and criminal investigations as a mirror of Swedish society.” I have seen enough, though, to believe that the critique already apparent accumulates over the remaining seven books–and especially in The Laughing Policeman (with its anti-Vietnam rallies and its complacently self-interested corporate villain) I can anticipate how it might proceed. Mankell writes that the authors never intended “to write crime stories as entertainment” and he points to Ed McBain as an inspiration for them, someone who showed how to use “crime novels to form the framework for stories containing social criticism.” McDermid highlights the difference between the Beck books and the “golden age” procedurals of the 1930s, set in a world in which “a bent cop is almost unthinkable; an incompetent one only a little less so.” I was actually surprised that none of these discussions mentioned the possible influence of hard-boiled detective novels: to be sure, one point of these is that their protagonist is not part of the official law enforcement system, but someone like Sam Spade moves precisely in a world of near-universal corruption (or, sometimes worse, incompetence) which very much includes the police. I mentioned the noir atmosphere of McBain’s Cop Hater, and I think there’s something of the same perspective–though illuminated by the flickering flourescent lights of bureaucracy, rather than the foggy fitfulness of street lights–in these bleak cop novels.

As for the cases, well, I didn’t like the graphic violence and sensational bursts of action in Faceless Killers. Two of the Beck novels I’ve read so far also turn on quite violent crimes, and particularly in Roseanna, the details are unrelentingly specific. Having read McBain’s comments about facing up to violence while still trying not to be “salacious” about it, I can see a similar principle at work in the Beck books, though I think the authors flirt with danger in the way they linger over the details of the sexual crimes and, especially, seem preoccupied with women’s sexual histories, or with women who are “too” sexually assertive or demanding. There are only rare cases of women who are something other than nagging/disappointed wives at home, or ‘whores’ shading into victims: here too, perhaps, some fruitful consideration might be given to the influence of hard-boiled novels, or perhaps this is just another reflection of the hyper-masculine world of the police. The standout exception is the woman police officer who helps entrap Roseanna’s murderer…but she too ultimately must play the vamp and then becomes a victim, only to be rescued. That the belatedness of the rescuers’ arrival is caused by the same kind of stupid screw-ups that typify the world of the novels more generally adds only a little painful irony to an exploitive situation.

These remain first impressions, but I feel like I’m making progress. I’ve talked fairly often about blogging as a way of thinking in public; it’s also, wonderfully, a way of learning in public. Thanks for your help so far–feel free to  keep correcting and supplementing my attempts to come to terms with this material!

10 thoughts on “Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Martin Beck Mysteries

  1. Litlove February 24, 2011 / 2:29 pm

    Yay! This is what makes you such a good academic (and blogger), Rohan – flexibility of mind and the will to go the extra mile. I must say I haven’t read any of this series, although I do believe I own one on my shelves, and must give it a go. Now I wish I could sit in on your class!


  2. Annie February 24, 2011 / 3:12 pm

    ‘Roseanna’ is sitting on my shelf at the moment precisely because I complained to a friend about Mankell and was told to go and read about Martin Beck. However, I haven’t got round to it as yet because I was sent Karin Fossum’s new book ‘Bad Intentions’ and one Scandinavian crime novel at a time is enough. Fossum is Norwegian, rather than Swedish, but I’m wondering if the same thing holds in respect of the translation issue, because so far I’m finding the writing very sparse (if I’m being generous) or flat (if I’m feeling less so). This is the seventh book in the series, but unfortunately I haven’t read any of the others so I can’t say if the style holds across her work. I shall have to finish this and then go back before I can make a real assessment.


  3. Susan Messer February 25, 2011 / 11:02 am

    This is more in the category of supplementing than anything else (since I haven’t read any of the books you’re discussing), but my husband and I have been watching films by a Finnish director named Aki Kurismaki (umlaut on the a in his last name). Here’s some basic info about him:

    His stuff is available from Netflix, and I learned about him when reading an interview with author Haruki Murakami, who said this was his favorite filmmaker. Your descriptive words here (empty, bleak, futile) plus this director’s flat, minimalist dialogue reminded me of the three or four films of his we have now seen. These are not crime films per se, but they all contain elements of crime, criminal investigations, injustice, jail cells. They’ve got a lot of style–are quite eccentric, as you might expect from a favorite of Murakami–and might supplement your picture of the place/atmosphere.


    • john sprung February 7, 2016 / 2:04 pm

      Id gotten a gift of the 10 Martin Beck books many years ago, and just finished the last of them. Did I understand you to say that they were available on Netflix? If so, I haven’t been able to find them. Any guidance you can give me would be appreciated. Best,


      • Rohan Maitzen February 9, 2016 / 11:16 am

        John, I think it’s a different series Susan found on Netflix. I at least have not found the Martin Beck series there, though I’m on Canadian Netflix which is often skimpy. I have watched the complete Wallander series on Netflix: it is excellent!


  4. Susan Toth February 25, 2011 / 2:28 pm

    I’m still thinking about fictional crime-solvers and their children. I spent the last few years escaping into well-written suspense/detective fiction (not exclusively, of course), since a mystery/thriller was one of the easiest ways to leave my small, intense caregiving world behind. Now I’ve realized that almost all the male detectives I read about have children–actually, usually ONE child–who is also almost always a girl. This daughter seldom lives with the hero/anti-hero. She is usually a young adult. They are often estranged, although the hero/anti-hero thinks of her often, sadly, and with much love. Hmmmm. Is this a humanizing ploy, and why a daughter rather than a son?

    I haven’t read the Wallander series; the PBS series was grim enough. But doesn’t he have a daughter somewhere? Hmmmm again.


  5. Rohan February 25, 2011 / 9:39 pm

    @litlove–thanks! Right back atcha, as they say in the U S of A.

    @Annie–Karin Fossum’s on my follow-up list, but with the really miserable weather we’re having I may need to take a sunshine break in my reading as I am starting to feel dreary, bleak and futile myself!

    @SusanM, thanks–I wonder if Netflix.Ca has these. Though, again, maybe I need to defer until we see the sun again over here!

    @SusanT, I watched the adaptation of Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution last night and at least in the TV version, the investigator has a daughter who ends up tagging along with her. She’s a reporter, though, not a cop. That’s an interesting point about the mostly absent daughters. You are right about Mankell–Wallander has a (grown) daughter who makes some appearances. I think Inspector Banks in the Peter Robinson series has children but I think again they live with his ex-wife. Oh, I just remembered: Rebus too has a daughter, who also lives with his ex-wife. She’s kidnapped in Knots and Crosses; I can’t recall how much she comes up in the later books. If this is the pattern, it may humanize the male detective, but also problematizes (forgive the ugly word!) by highlighting how work cuts him off from his family (and maybe especially from the women in his family?).


  6. The English Teacher February 26, 2011 / 3:36 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. I’ve been buried in work the last couple months, and I’ve finally had a chance to raise up my head and look around. To my delight, I see that you’re reading Mankell, among others. I’m making my way through his novels–The Fifth Woman is the fifth I’ve read,–and your article helps to put his work into context as well as suggest some future reading for me. Thanks!


  7. Rohan February 27, 2011 / 12:31 pm

    Welcome back, English Teacher! I should probably put my own head down for a while. I’m glad the Mankell discussions are timely for you. I’ve just started The Fifth Woman, taking Dorian’s advice to skip ahead a bit in the series. Right now my problem is I keep forgetting it’s not one of the Beck novels and the characters and backstories are blurring in my mind! Perhaps this is a side effect of the ‘effaced personality’ approach.


  8. Shelley March 3, 2011 / 1:21 pm

    My great-aunt is of Swedish descent, and I’m wondering if there are any Scandinavian crime novels without the grim grindingness?


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