Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 10, 2014

The Marxist roots of Swedish detective novels

Filed under: literature,popular culture,Sweden — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

From “Stieg Larsson: the Real Story of the Man Who Played With Fire” by Jan-Erik Petterson:

ABOUT A WEEK AFTER THE FIRST Swedish anti-Vietnam War demonstration and the same year the Swedish police were nationalized, the detective story Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo was published. This was the book which was to introduce the revolution in Swedish detective fiction and without which Jan Guillou’s Hamilton books, Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy could probably never have been written.

Sjowall and Wahloo threw out the old props of the ingenious sleuth assembling the suspects in the manor house library and instead placed the real, unromantic, crime-solving police centre stage.

Roseanna was just the start of a carefully devised plan. The man-and-wife team had decided they would produce exactly ten novels over ten years, published under the collective rubric of The Story of a Crime. The books would use the detective story format to reflect and analyse contemporary Sweden. More than that: they would, in Per Wahloo’s words, ‘rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society’.

Per Wahloo had already had some novels published, mostly political thrillers, but Maj Sjowall, who worked for the weekly press, was new to fiction. Both were politically committed and way to the left of the ruling Social Democrats.

Their views were not entirely surprising, even though several years ahead of their time. But the literary venture was a bold one. Crime fiction was middle class. In the circles they moved in they certainly got no brownie points for writing in that medium. Even from a commercial perspective, thrillers were no guarantee of success. The publishing director at Norstedts, Lasse Bergstrom, wrote in his memoirs, Bokmarken (Bookmarks), that he was rather disappointed when Wahloo, whom he already knew well, came to the office with Maj Sjowall to propose their project.

`But my disappointment was in total ignorance of what was to come,’ was his later terse comment on his reaction at the time.

Sjowall and Wahloo wanted to try something new, something daring and unexpected. To hell with traditions, even those of the Labour movement. They would write for a broad public and make it so easy and exciting that the bitter pill of the authors’ social critique would slide down without meeting any resistance.

And weren’t class divisions in society a crime in themselves, anyway? And shouldn’t they be depicted as such?

From Sjowall—Wahloo onwards, the Swedish crime novel — oddly enough given its context — has been a genre with a strong tendency to the Left.

Fortunately for the authors, it was as if the era itself was crying out for a fresh sort of literature. The expansive, realistic, elaborate epic felt played out. What was needed now was something more in keeping with the pulse of the new decade — edgy, nerve-tingling, straight to the point.

At that period, the documentary form predominated in all the arts. Truth carried more weight than fiction. Within the space of a few years the book market was flooded with current affairs and reportage. Sjowall—Wahloo, despite opting for the novel, were in perfect accord with the trend. Their blow-by-blow accounts of meetings in police headquarters, interrogations of witnesses and suspects, post-mortem reports and so forth convinced the reader that these procedures were completely true to life.

Such devices would go on to become the staple for all Swedish crime writers.

Sjowall and Wahloo were aware too of crime fiction traditions other than the Swedish, just as Stieg Larsson was thirty years on. In the USA Dashiell Hammett had introduced the hard-boiled school of crime fiction with his novels about the private detective Sam Spade. Hammett was an anti-fascist and member of the American Communist Party, and wrote about a society that seldom showed any mercy to anyone born on the wrong side of the tracks. And in France Georges Simenon had created his Chief Superintendent Jules Maigret, who not only solved crimes but also sought to analyse their cause and was able to feel sympathy for the perpetrators.

Sjowall and Wahloo had found a useful model in the American crime writer Ed McBain and his novels about the 87th Police Precinct in the fictional town of Isola. McBain depicts the cops Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling and their laborious daily grind confronting a criminality of steadily increasing ruthlessness. These books were fine examples of the police procedural, detective stories where the efforts of the team are much more important than an individual detective hero’s flashes of insight. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo decided to learn from McBain and even translated some of his books into Swedish.

Roseanna introduces a Swedish police team at the Homicide Bureau in Stockholm. They are Detective Inspector Martin Beck (later superinten-dent and head of the National Homicide Bureau of the Central Bureau of Investigation) and his assistants Lennart Kollberg and Fredrik Melander. The cast is gradually augmented: Gunvald Larsson, Einar Minn, Ake Stenstrom (who is murdered in the fourth book and succeeded by Benny Skacke), and also Stenstrom’s former girlfriend Asa Torell.

This is the team that battles to solve various crimes and more often than not succeeds. Yet in the final analysis they always lose. In contrast to the crime stories of the 1950s, no equilibrium is restored in the police procedurals of the 1960s and 1970s. Society itself is constantly producing new and more serious, more audacious and better-organized types of crime. The Sjowall—Wahloo books are not reading matter for the optimistic.

These novels are about the triumphs and impotence of the collec-tive. Young individualists and careerists who are too self-important are bullied and cut down to size, not least by Lennart Kollberg. But the biggest difference of all in comparison with earlier crime novels lies in something more elusive: in the language, the style, the atmosphere:

The little black car hurtled forward through the darkness precisely and implacably, as if it were a weightless craft in space.

The buildings tightened along the road and the city rose up beneath its dome of light, huge and cold and desolate, stripped of everything but hard naked surfaces of metal, glass and concrete.

Not even in the city centre was there any street life at this hour of the night. With the exception of an occasional taxi, two ambulances and a squad car, everything was dead. The police car was black with white fenders and rushed quickly past on its own bawling carpet of sound.

The traffic lights changed from red to yellow to green to yellow to red with a meaningless mechanical monotony.

Here, at the beginning of The Abominable Man, the authors manage to get everything into one short sequence — the forward movement, the suspense of the thriller, the doom-laden feeling of imminent calamity, together with an evocation of the new Swedish capitalist society as they see it — cold, desolate, inhuman.

Something really had happened to Swedish crime fiction.

THE SJOWALL-WAHLOO BOOKS were written from the outset in a restrained objective style, but by degrees the text became more inter-spersed with ironical and critical comments on everything from beer prices and fashions to government foreign policy and the incompetence of the police force and its top management.

What the authors diagnosed in the mid-1960s was a welfare state degenerating, no longer class-equalizing but class-dividing, where people were oppressed by assembly lines and rationalizations, where original residential town centres were being demolished and the urban populace pushed out to so-called dormitory towns.

And the social drama was escalating as the volumes were being written. Vietnam demonstrations were attracting thousands of participants, police and demonstrators clashed, a tennis tournament in Bastad between Sweden and Rhodesia was disrupted by riots, a students’ union building in Stockholm was occupied, a wave of wildcat strikes hit the whole country, the Establishment was rocked by the IB Affair of secret service malpractice, and a hostage drama on Norrmalmstorg and a terrorist attack on the West German embassy brought Stockholm to the attention of the world.

Politics had moved out on to the streets. Violence was making itself felt.

The authorial voice became more explicit as The Story of a Crime progressed. At the very end of the last volume, as some of the main characters are sitting playing party games, it becomes over-explicit:

They all turned their papers over and drew more squares. When Kollberg was ready, he looked at Martin Beck and said, ‘The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’re in the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.’

‘Is that all?’

‘More or less,’ said Kollberg. ‘My turn to start? Then I say X. X as in Marx.’

This final scene in The Terrorists is dated 10 January 1975. Four months later NLF troops marched into Saigon and the USA left Vietnam. The war that had brought the youth of the West to their feet was over. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge took power and ushered in a period of unimaginable terror.

The Left to which Sjowall and Wahloo felt they belonged was about to experience disillusionment and factionalism. Nothing was straightforward any more. The unique combination of anger and hope that had swept the emotions along during the dramatic years when The Story of a Crime was being written was gone, never to return.

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahltio had wanted to write for the people and not for the Swedish Academy or the broadsheet newspaper critics. As a result they became the critics’ favourites, which was to have a decisive impact on the Swedish crime novel. Because it was this interplay of effective popular storytelling, widespread media attention and positive reactions on the arts pages that brought the Swedish crime fiction vogue into being and allowed it to flourish.

With the praise came honours and prizes. In 1968 the authors received the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the highest accolade for a crime novel, for The Laughing Policeman. Now even the most dismissive of readers could bury themselves in a Martin Beck police thriller with a clear conscience.

It was not long before the Sjowall—Wahloo police team progressed into the film world. Martin Beck has been played by such stars as Keve Hjelm, Gosta Ekman, Carl Gustaf Lindstedt and Peter Haber. A German version of The Man Who Went up in Smoke featured Derek Jacobi in the role of Beck. Walter Matthau was given the part in the Hollywood version of The Laughing Policeman and Jan Decleir in a Dutch film of The Locked Room.

Ironically, it has only been in later years, with the industrial production of Martin Beck films on standardized thriller lines (twenty-six so far) that the protagonist has become well known to a really wide audience. Yet the Martin Beck and Gunvald Larsson we meet there have almost nothing in common with the classic detective story characters that Sjowall and Wahloo created.


  1. Nice review, Louis. As a teenager I read Agatha Christie, so reading the Martin Beck series as a young adult was quite a sensation. They’re fascinating novels, and a good corrective for anyone who has illusions about Swedish social-democracy. I think they’re considerably to the left of the Stieg Larsson novels, which have good capitalists and bad capitalists and no character like Kollberg.

    Comment by Glenn — September 10, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

  2. Agree w/Glenn. This is a great post. Thanks for putting it up.

    Comment by Michael Hirsch — September 10, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

  3. Thanks, but I did not write it. It was an excerpt from the book shown in the article. A used copy goes for a penny on Amazon.com and is a bargain at a thousand times the price.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 10, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

  4. I would be interested in anyone’s take on “The Bridge”, or “Broen”, a joint Swedish/Danish production, a sort of Euro-Noir TV crime series. It’s on BBC4. I’ve only been following the American version so far, set on the border between Juarez and El Paso. It is a demanding series to watch but so far I’ve liked it. Demian Bichir plays Marcos, a Ciudad Juarez police detective trying to maintain a sense of personal integrity amidst the ultra-violence and corruption in the ranks. He teams up with Sonya Cross, played by German actress Diane Kruger, an El Paso detective with Asperger syndrome. Together they investigate a twisted murder which apparently took place on the border between the 2 cities. Sonya’s boss is played by Ted Levine, who some may remember from his role as the arch-villain in “Silence of the Lambs”. Franka Potente is interesting as a “church-lady” fixer for the local cartel boss.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — September 10, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

  5. I think the Sjowall and Wahloo books are some of the best on offer in post war crime fiction. They are richer and deeper than most of their peers, and remain a major template influencing European crime fiction to this day. Their impact is major in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels for instance — and while there is deference to American hard boiled fiction, the writing is sharper & less indulgent , more keenly narrative and procedural than works from the US tradition.
    I’ve written some on crime fiction and among that is this review of the works of Sjowall and Wahloo.

    My crime fiction (and film noir) reviews and thoughts are collated here:

    Comment by Dave Riley — September 10, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

  6. Sorry the 1st link lost its .html. This is more Swedish….

    Comment by Dave Riley — September 10, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

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