Death in Sweden

by Chris Bertram on April 22, 2007

Just before Christmas, I picked up a copy of _Roseanna_, the first volume of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series. I’ve just finished the final volume _The Terrorists_. Having read the first, I had to read them all. Since the reprint schedule wasn’t going to get me them all quickly enough, I scoured Hay-on-Wye for volumes and then the internet. In the 1960s and 1970s Sjowall and Wahloo, husband and wife, collaborated on the sequence of ten detective stories set (mainly) in Sweden. Though we at CT sometimes Scandinavia as some kind of benign alternative to North American capitalism, the far-leftish Sjowall and Wahloo had a much more negative take. The Swedish welfare state that appears in the novels is a grotesque fraud perpetrated on the working class and they use the device of detective fiction to show a reality of desperation, poverty, isolation, alienation, exploitation, and criminality. But the novels are hardly exercises in _agitprop_ . If they were, they’d be a pretty poor read. Instead, their brutally cynical vision of Swedish society simply tinges the whole and emerges through the facts and the occasional acid comment.

At the centre is Beck. He is dour, he is miserable, he is middle aged, and often seems to have a cold. For most of the sequence he is trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage and we follow him as he migrates from the bed, to the sofa and, finally, out the door. Beck does what he does without much drama, methodically and quietly, despite the incompetence and politicking of the police hierarchy. To assist him he has Lennart Kollberg, an ex-para who refuses to carry a gun, who eventually quits the force in disgust, and Gunnvald Larsson, a brusque dandy and former seaman (whom Kollberg hates for much of the series). And there are a string of other minor characters, of course.

Any sequence of ten novels is bound to be a little bit uneven. There is something great about _Roseanna_ (else I wouldn’t have continued), but it lacks the colour of the later novels, and number 2 ( _The Man Who Went Up in Smoke_ ) was a bit of a chore. But the series really gets going with _The Man on the Balcony_ and, especially with _The Laughing Policeman_ (later a film with Walter Matthau, relocated to San Francisco – I haven’t seen it) which I read in almost a single sitting. It was probably my favourite, but the antepenultimate story, _The Locked Room_, may run it close.

There are weaknesses in the novels. Chief among these is the way that cases get solved through happy coincidences. The police are working away, sifting records and knocking on doors and then someone (perhaps an incompetent patrolman in an outlying district) stumbles on something that isn’t quite right and – hey presto – the case is solved! But the depth of characterization and the portrait of a society that is all buffed and shiny on the outside but full of worms and maggots inside makes up for this.

(I wrote this post a couple of weeks back. Having finished the series, and feeling bereft without a Swedish detective to read about, I started on the first of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, _Faceless Killers_. It is kind of fun, but, so far, not nearly as good. Beck is, in a some way, everyman. He may be morose, but he is easy to identify with (at least for me). And he is surrounded by other people who have a reality and a depth similar to his own. Wallander seems much more an assembly-job than an organic literary creation to me. When Wallander is listening to opera I have the sense that Mankell decided to give him a hobby as a way of individuating the character. Beck, by contrast, sits alone and builds model ships. It just seems like the kind of thing he might do and not at all like something the authors bolted on.)



Martin Grüner Larsen 04.22.07 at 10:47 am

It’s a fantastic series! It was, in fact, instrumental in my becoming an avid reader. I started with the Laughing Policeman (translated into Danish as “Last Stop – Murder”. Eek. The Norwegian title used to be “Death Rides the Bus”.) and, like you, read the whole thing over the next year. After that, being 10 at the time, I read them over and over, and have probably read every book in the series more than once.

One should remember, though, that the society described is that of the 1960s, and quite different from the social democracies of today. An updated version, more in tune with the new problems of Scandinavia (god knows we have them) is the new film series based on the characters instead of the plots. The series is called Beck. They’re sort of internet age neo-noir. Gunnvald Larsson, brilliantly played by Michael Persbrandt, is made the central partner of Beck, and Kollberg – my favourite character besides the leading man – is conspicously absent.

ANd btw, the mother of a friend of mine just worked on a new translation into Norwegian of the series. So I almost met Maj Sjöwall 2 weeks ago.


Jacob Christensen 04.22.07 at 11:24 am

The alternative to scouring Hay-on-Wye is to learn to read Swedish – all of the series are still in print.

I’m not really an expert on Swedish crime novels (or Swedish fiction in general) but S+W on the one hand seems to have started a tradition of realistic crime writing while later writers on the other hand never quite managed to integrate the social and the individual levels. Perhaps that is a sign of the (changing) times?

Wallander’s opera comes across as a bit of a shtick (are we dealing with an Inspector Morse copycat here?). HÃ¥kan Nesser had his inspector Van Veeteren take up a second career as – tadaa! – a second-hand book-seller.

There are also quite a few homicidal female writers around, with Liza Marklund as the best-known.


Matt 04.22.07 at 12:03 pm

So, how do they compare to the “I Am Curious” films as criticsim of Swedish society? (Maybe those films are earlier.)


Andrew Brown 04.22.07 at 12:06 pm

I just reread the whole Sj{o”}wall Wahl{o”}{o”} series too, but with much less pleasure. The politics are _so_ grotesque, especially in the last few books, when everyone keeps bursting out into little arias of Marxism, that it took my pleasure away from the excellences. Also, the Mary-Sue-ish girlfriend whom Beck acquires (and who puts a poster of Mao up above his bed) is another ideological clunker.

After he died, she wrote another series of detective books, collaborating, I think, with a Norwegian. She’s still alive and well, so fas I know — I rang her up last summer, tryig to set up an interview.


Andrew Brown 04.22.07 at 12:08 pm

Oh, great. Textile markup doesn’t work for accented letters here. Sorry about that. Sjöwall and Wahlööl then.


Dan Karreman 04.22.07 at 12:15 pm

Yes, the S&W series is brilliant. Unfortunately, Maj Sjöwall has decided to cash in, hence a long series of feature-length TV shows loosely based on the characters but completely devoid of the social commentary that penetrates the novel (it’s telling that the new series has no use for Kollberg). Per Wahlöö also wrote a couple of dystopic science fiction crime novels, and a couple of novels that discussed totalitarianism and dictatorship, all of them excellent. For more info on Per Wahlöö, see here.


Martin Grüner Larsen 04.22.07 at 12:21 pm

I prefer the middle part of the series as well. The later ones are way too heavy-handed. But I didn’t really think the series completely jumped the shark until Gunvald Larsson has the severed head (of a dictator, I think) land in his lap in the last volume.


dearieme 04.22.07 at 12:54 pm

How do they compare with, for example, the Inspector Rebus stories?


rd 04.22.07 at 1:26 pm

If glum Nordic detectives are your game, you might like the novels of Arnaldur Indridason, set in Iceland.


otto 04.22.07 at 2:11 pm

Ordered Roseanna.

These little book tips are one of the reasons I like CT.


Jacob Christensen 04.22.07 at 2:50 pm

@dearieme: I haven’t read any of the Inspector Rebus series, but Wikipedia tells us that:

Rebus can be said to belong to a long tradition of paternal Scottish hard men. A natural leader whose gruff exterior and fierce will to succeed in his field belies a benevolent nature.

Maybe the original Martin Beck (not the one of the most recent TV series) can be said to belong to a long tradition of self-doubting Swedish introverted men.

As some of the other posts say: The series reach an artistic peak in the middle books. I remember #9 and #10 in particular as being very heavy-handed.

On the other hand, the strength of the series is that it – unlike much other crime fiction – actually follows the huge political and social changes Swedish society faced between the mid-60s and the mid-70s.

It is also worth noting that the Swedish police force underwent a total reorganisation in the mid-60s. This is also mirrored in the narrative. (The clown show Swedish police made out of the inquest into the Palme-murder suggests that there were many problems left in the police force in the 1980s and in a way S+W covers some of them).


me2i81 04.22.07 at 3:54 pm

But I didn’t really think the series completely jumped the shark until Gunvald Larsson has the severed head (of a dictator, I think) land in his lap in the last volume.
If I recall correctly (and it’s been at least 20 years since I read that one) his reaction to the severed head was the best part of that scene–Larsson looked down at his suit, and said to himself, “completely ruined.”


duncan 04.22.07 at 4:06 pm

Like Otto says, I really enjoy the book every bit as good as Chris had said.recommendations here – I finished Mr Mee a week or so back, which was just outstanding. Will have to keep an eye out for these.


Chris Bertram 04.22.07 at 4:50 pm

_the Mary-Sue-ish girlfriend whom Beck acquires_

Rhea Nielsen. I thought she was great!

dearime: I never got so hooked by Rebus, myself. He always seemed a bit of a pale imitation of William McIllvanney’s Laidlaw. If you like Rebus, then try _Laidlaw_ and _The Papers of Tony Veitch_.


abb1 04.22.07 at 5:33 pm

Re: recommendations. I dunno, I bought and read Stasiland and it was – OK, readable – but hardly more than crude melodramatic anti-communist propaganda. Liberty, happiness and good people in the West vs. tyranny, suffering, and terrible (and fat) people in the East.
I was disappointed.


dearieme 04.22.07 at 5:48 pm

Thanks, Chris. I did, years ago. Pretty good, I thought.


quietelm 04.22.07 at 6:41 pm

The social commentary is interesting, but it’s not laid on too thick. One thing I enjoyed about the series is that Beck has a life that changes over the course of the series. It was interesting to see how things turned out for hiim.


Randy Paul 04.22.07 at 10:16 pm

Chris, I don’t know if it’s available on DVD, but Bo Widerberg did a pretty good version of Man on the Roof some time ago.


Harald K 04.23.07 at 7:15 am

“The portrait of a society that is all buffed and shiny on the outside but full of worms and maggots inside makes up for this.”

It seems to me those are always popular. What about societies that are buffed and shiny on the outside and are pretty OK on the inside too?

I had a discussion the other day with my wife about Tarjei Vesaas’ “Kimen”, and she was suprised I’d never read it because it sounded just like my kind of book. I suppose at one point I stopped reading opinionated fiction that makes pretenses at realism, because it seemed so deceptive. No matter how realistic the author strives to be, the book can never reflect anything more than the author’s view. I don’t like people playing emotional strings to convince me that a certain society is nice on the outside but rotten underneath, because I know that it could work, and I’ve seen that hatchet job being applied to some societies that I happen to have seen the insides of (small town life, small evangelical congregations).

Still, “Kimen” may still be surreal enough that might read it, after all. I did enjoy Selma Lagerlöf’s “Jerusalem”, and that is partly realistic.


wufnik 04.23.07 at 9:48 am

Stick with the Mankell–Wallender grows on you. And as someone who reads lots of Nordic mysteries, two other favorites–Karin Fossum, who paints a bleak and (occasionally) very wry and funny picture of modern Norway, and Kirsten Ekman, who has written a number of novels, which include a couple of fine mysteries, particularly Blackwater. And the extraordinary The Forest of Hours, which is not a mystery at all, just a wonderful novel whose central character happens to be a troll.


lillemask 04.23.07 at 9:56 am

The best recent Sjöwall-Wahlöö-style thriller I’ve read is Gellert Tamas’ Lasermannen from 2003. It is actually a nonfiction account of a real Swedish serial killer, but the writing, suspense and social commentary is on par with Sjöwall-Wahlöö at their best. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available in English.

It was made into an excellent Swedish TV miniseries in 2005.


Doug 04.23.07 at 10:22 am

Mankell keeps getting better, Chris. Try One Step Behind (or you can try it in German — he’s big here — as Midsommermord) or The Fifth Woman (Die Fünfte Frau).


Katherine 04.23.07 at 11:02 am

I’ll put in a third vote for the Wallander novels. Definitely got better, and I just devoured them one after another.


Chris Bertram 04.23.07 at 3:47 pm

Ok, I’ll persevere.


Slayton I. Musgo 04.23.07 at 7:54 pm

You might also enjoy Janwillem van de Wetering’s Grijpstra and de Gier stories. They are set in Holland, not Sweden, but the team are a grumpy, dumpy older man with a bad marriage with a handsome dandy for a partner. Less politics maybe, more Buddhist philosophy. Same social commentary of 60s/70s milieu.

This may lead to Nicholas Freling, who has 2 detective series, and a number of stand-alones. Set in Netherlands or France, or EU at large. Full of social insight and some beautiful writing. “Tsing-Boom” is a great place to start.


JakeB 04.23.07 at 8:10 pm

If you put the observation-of-the-main-character’s-life trope on a spectrum, I’d say Rebus is far past Wallander away from Beck. You see social questions discussed in all three, but much of the Rebus series, especially later on, is wondering just how much more he can break down and keep going. I’ve occasionally wondered if Harry Bosch, the hero of another series I really like, has been somehow vampirically draining the life from Rebus, as he seems to become more alive as the series goes on rather than less. Along some similar lines is Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series. There’s some very good ones in there, as well.


Andrew Brown 04.23.07 at 8:22 pm

Freeling is wonderful at his best. High points are “gadget”, about some terrorists building a bomb; and “Who are the bugles blowing for?” which is about the death penalty. I have forgotten the name of the brilliant Dutch one where the hero has to spend six months undercover in a provincial town, “Criminal Correspondence” perhaps.

Also second the recommendation for Kerstin Ekman.

I really loved the S+W novels when I read them the first time round, but an awful lot of the suspense goes out of them once you realise that anyone rich is a villain. Also, reading them in the light of modern Sweden is a very odd and rather unpleasant experience. They were, in their way, the product of a belief system quite as closed and unrealistic as the “Left Behind” series. But with all that said, they are beautifully plotted, well told, and derive a great deal of emotional strength from their remarkable nostalgia. It is extraordinary how consistently S&W and their characters hate everything (then) modern.


Matt Weiner 04.23.07 at 9:58 pm

I have forgotten the name of the brilliant Dutch one where the hero has to spend six months undercover in a provincial town, “Criminal Correspondence” perhaps.

“Double Barrel”! Not “Criminal Correspondence” which I didn’t like at all — “Double Barrel” I remember as brilliant. (You want the one with the poison pen letters, right?)

OTOH it strikes me that the Freeling novels I don’t like, CC and “No Part in Your Death,” are the ones I’ve read within recent memory. Is it possible that I don’t like Freeling anymore? All the other ones I’ve read are van der Valks.

Second the recommendation for at least some van der Wettering; I found the story collection charming. The blurbs on some of the more recent ones seem kind of weird — has one of the characters moved to America?


Martin Grüner Larsen 04.23.07 at 10:32 pm

Can I just say, for the record, that it is funny and quite wonderful that so many of you guys are completely in tune with the history of Scandinavian crime fiction.


Andrew Brown 04.24.07 at 4:53 am

Double Barrel! Yes. That was it. Poison pen letters; Arlette does a drunken dance in her suspenders.

Is Tsing-Boum the one about Dien Bien Phu? If so, that is also brilliant.


stostosto 04.24.07 at 9:03 am

Balderson, anyone?

Loved this series! Brilliant, satirical, hilarious Рand, of course with the added bonus of the ultimate whodunnit metamystery: Who is behind the pseudonym Bo Balderson? Olof Palme? Astrid Lindgren? Bj̦rn Borg? (OK, that was silly).

I don’t know if these books have been published in English, though.

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