Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 7, 2020

Maj Sjowall, Marxist author of detective stories, dies at 84

Filed under: literature,Sweden — louisproyect @ 12:20 am

In September 2014, I wrote a review for CounterPunch titled “Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories” that referred to the writing team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. Today I read an obituary for her in the NY Times that I reproduce below to get past the paywall. While my review covered a range of Swedish Marxist crime novelists, I will quote the passage that dealt with Wahloo and Sjowall who were not only great writers but smart enough to see through the notion of the “Swedish model”:

In 1965 the husband and wife writing team of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall published their first novel “Roseanna” that introduced Stockholm Chief Inspector Martin Beck to the world. Both were committed Marxists and hoped, in Wahlöö’s words, to “rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society”.

Like the “Wallander” series reviewed below, the Swedish television series titled “Beck” should probably be described as “inspired” by the novels rather than a direct treatment that was faithful to the authors’ radical vision of Swedish society. That being said, “Beck” retains the noirish sensibility of the original and can be relied upon to hold the dark side of Swedish society to scrutiny as well as being first-rate television drama.

In the premiere episode of season one that aired in 1997, two teen-age immigrant male prostitutes have turned up dead. The first reaction of Beck and his fellow cops is to wonder if another “laser killer” was on the loose again, a reference that would be obscure to most non-Swedish viewers but key to understanding the preoccupations of the writers.

From August 1991 to January 1992 John Ausonius shot 11 people in Sweden, most of whom were immigrants, using a rifle equipped with a laser sight—hence his nickname. The shootings occurred when the New Democracy was on the rise in Sweden, a party that had much in common with Golden Dawn and other fascist parties throughout Europe.

Not long into the investigation, Martin Beck refocuses it on a search for a homicidal pederast. Like Bjurman, the social worker who preys on Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the killer is a respectable member of Swedish society. This is the most common element of all the television series reviewed here: the moral rot of the people at the top.

As Beck and his team make their rounds interrogating suspects in the dark of night, Stockholm is recast as a noir landscape under dark clouds and rain. This is not a city of strapping male and female blondes preparing for a weekend skiing trip but of junkies and prostitutes who belong in William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”.

Nobody could ever confuse Beck with the Aryan ideal. With his thinning hair, homely face and flabby body, the fifty-something cop played by Peter Haber, who resembles Karl Malden, looks more like an accountant or a middle manager than someone heading up a homicide investigation—or at least what American television would put forward for such a role. Nor is Beck particularly assertive in his relations with people outside his department. After he refuses to co-sign a loan his daughter needs to move into an apartment obtained illegally (likely violating Sweden’s strict housing codes), she bawls him out in a crowded restaurant as if he were an errant child.

In the first episode, we meet two of the characters with major roles in “Beck”, his subordinate Gunvald Larsson who is constantly bending or breaking rules in Dirty Harry fashion and Lena Klingström, a cyber-cop who spends her working day on the Internet looking for clues rather than going out and busting heads like Larsson. In this first episode, bending rules and trawling the Internet both produce results.

Comic relief occurs in every episode when the divorcee Beck returns home each night to his lonely apartment. Like clockwork, he runs into his unnamed sixtyish neighbor who has hennaed hair and a neck-brace that is never explained. Played by veteran actor Ingvar Hirdwall, he is always musing on the decline and fall of everything, a perfect Greek chorus of one to accompany some classic crime stories.

“Beck”, seasons one through three, can be seen on Amazon streaming.


Maj Sjowall, Godmother of Nordic Noir, Dies at 84

With her companion, Per Wahloo, Ms. Sjowall wrote 10 books starring Martin Beck, a laconic, flawed Swedish detective.

Maj Sjowall, the Swedish crime author, in 2015. “I never thought the books would last all my life,” she said.
Credit…Tt News Agency/via Reuters

Maj Sjowall, a Swedish novelist who collaborated with her companion on a series of celebrated police procedurals that heralded the crime-fiction genre of Nordic Noir (including the wildly successful books of Stieg Larsson), died on Wednesday in a hospital in Landskrona, Sweden. She was 84.

The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Ann-Marie Skarp, chief executive of Piratforlaget, the books’ Swedish publisher. In recent years Ms. Sjowall lived on Ven, a small island off the southwestern coast of Sweden.

With their first novel, “Roseanna” (1965), about the strangling death of a young tourist, Ms. Sjowall and Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, introduced Martin Beck, an indefatigable, taciturn homicide detective in Stockholm.

“He is not a heroic person,” Ms. Sjowall (pronounced SHO-vall) told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2015. “He is like James Stewart in some American films, just a nice guy trying to do his job.”

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In terse, fast-moving prose, the couple wrote nine more Beck books, including “The Laughing Policeman,” which won the Edgar Award in 1971 for best mystery novel and was made into a film in 1973 starring Walter Matthau, with its setting moved from Stockholm to San Francisco. Several Swedish movies and a TV series, “Beck,” have been made based on the novels.

Mr. Wahloo died shortly before their 10th Beck mystery, “The Terrorists,” was published in 1975, and Ms. Sjowall never revisited the detective again.

As a team, they helped redefine crime fiction with Beck’s flawed, laconic and empathetic character — an acclaimed addition to the pantheon of literary gumshoes like Georges Simenon’s Maigret and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

Ms. Sjowall with Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, in an undated photograph. They wrote 10 Martin Beck crime novels that heralded a genre called Nordic Noir. 
Credit…Associated Press

Wendy Lesser, the author of “Scandinavian Noir: In Search of a Mystery” (2020), said in an email that Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo’s novels “had a direct or indirect influence on every subsequent mystery writer in Scandinavia,” among them Henning Mankel and Jo Nesbo, as well as on American crime writers like Michael Connelly.

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Mr. Larsson’s posthumously-published trilogy of Millennium novels — including “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — “are highly derivative of all previous-to-him Scandinavian thriller writers,” Ms. Lesser added.

Mr. Nesbo, in the introduction to a 2009 English-language reissue of his third Blake mystery, “The Man on the Balcony,” wrote: “Sjowall and Wahloo have shoulders that can accommodate all of today’s crime writers. And we are all there.”

Maj Sjowall was born on Sept. 25, 1935, in Stockholm, where she grew up on the top floor of one of the hotels her father managed. She recalled an unhappy, unloved childhood.

She was a single mother at 21 — her boyfriend had left her before her daughter, Lena Sjowall, was born — then married and divorced two older men by the time she met Mr. Wahloo, a left-wing journalist and novelist, in about 1962.

Ms. Sjowall was a magazine art director, and the two worked for different publications owned by the same publisher. They fell in love discussing a crime series that would focus on a single detective. They also wanted their books to reflect their Marxist views.

“We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer,” Ms. Sjowall said in an interview with The Guardian in 2009.

From the beginning, they planned 10 books, which they wrote at night while her daughter and their sons, Jens and Tetz Sjowall Wahloo, slept. Facing each other across a table, they wrote alternate chapters in longhand. The next night, they edited and typed the other’s work, mindful of finding a style that appealed to a broad audience.

“We never talked about the story when we were writing it,” she said to The Telegraph. “The only things we said were, ‘Pass me the cigarettes,’ or, ‘It’s your turn to make some more tea.’”

 

“Roseanna” was inspired by an American woman whom Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo saw standing alone on a ferry to Gothenburg.

They got the idea behind “Roseanna” as they watched an American woman standing alone on a ferry trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. “I caught Per looking at her,” she told The Guardian, and she asked, “Why don’t we start the book by killing this woman?”

In their description of the fictionalized woman’s body being dredged out of a canal, they wrote: “A group of amazed people gathered around and stared at her. Some of them were children and shouldn’t have been there but not one thought to send them away. But all of them had one thing in common: they would never forget how she looked.”

After Mr. Wahloo’s death (the two never married), her literary output slowed. She collaborated with Tomas Ross, a Dutch writer, on the crime novel “The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo” (1990) and translated some of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels into Swedish.

Ms. Sjowall is survived by her three children and five grandchildren.

The last Martin Beck book was published 45 years ago, and Ms. Sjowall remained surprised that the stories continued to resonate with readers and fans of the Swedish TV series.

“This is a part of my life that I didn’t expect,” she told The Guardian. “I never thought the books would last all my life, or that I’d still be thinking about them after all this time.”

 

4 Comments »

  1. You know you’re getting old when you’ve outlived all the decent writers of popular fiction. I guess there’s still Arnaldur Indridasson and one or two others but somehow it just isn’t the same. Thank god we don’t live forever.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 7, 2020 @ 6:20 am

  2. Thanks, Louis, for reminding me of those Beck noirs.

    After reading “The Laughing Policeman,” I failed to return as I began to Leonardo Padura’s Habana crime fiction, then plowed deep into Belano starting with “Los detectives salvajes” and now for the past several months his “2666.” Once we’re beyond this pandemic–6 months or a year and more–I vow to return to Beck.

    Too, thanks, for the background on the deceased.

    Comment by William Boyd — May 7, 2020 @ 11:37 am

  3. Farans,

    Walter Mosley is still around. Good stories, plus good sociology. In my plebeian opinion.

    Comment by Reza — May 7, 2020 @ 3:03 pm

  4. I understand that being a leftist in a place like the US can easily drive somebody insane, but the US leftists’ obsession with Sweden is really bizarre. That Sweden is not some utopia is hardly surprising, Swedes are only humans after all. Jan Bondeson’s book about the Palme assassination is also much more informative and enlightening about Sweden’s darker aspects than any detective novel.

    Comment by Maximilian1979 — May 11, 2020 @ 11:12 am


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