As Scandinavian detective fiction has exploded onto the international scene over the last twenty years, it is sometimes easy to forget that the genre has been experiencing international renown since the late 1960s. With so much attention paid to contemporary authors, it is time to contextualize the recent history of Scandinavian detective fiction in terms of the region’s most classic crime writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
These two authors, over the course of ten years and ten novels, single handedly created the modern police procedural. Their oeuvre has been the model for Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and pretty much every detective show on television. Their cast of detectives, cantankerous, flawed, and with all the personality clashes of long-time coworkers, have become the template for cop dramas at home and abroad. Their detective, Martin Beck, has been played by Walter Mathau, which by itself indicates their commitment to portraying the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Their story, too, has been the model for many an author’s journey. The two began in investigative journalism and from there decided to put political opinions to paper in a popular and accessible format. Inspired by the social criticism in such authors as Dashiell Hammett and George Simenon, they chose detective fiction as their medium.
Unusually, however, they wrote as a team – Sjöwall and Wahlöö lived together as a common law couple and each night, after putting their children to bed, each wrote an alternating chapter. The next day, they would switch chapters and edit each other’s work. In this way, they wrote one novel a year, for ten years. In the tenth year of their collaboration, Per Wahlöö died, and Maj Sjöwall never wrote again.
As a collaborative team, they found common ground not only in their mutual affection, but in their shared left-wing politics. They established a model for social criticism in Scandinavia still used today, in which they focused on examining the shadowy nature of capitalism embedded within the post-war welfare state. They wrote in a time of social and political upheaval, especially in terms of gender roles, and the crimes investigated are carefully chosen to match the spirit of the times. Many of the Scandinavian crime writers we most associate with the genre draw heavily from the allegorical nature of Sjöwall and Wahlöö ‘s crimes, and in such pointed pieces as Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo we find increasingly refined and yet somehow less immediate variations on a theme.
Despite their politically motivated message, the two never wrote in a heavy-handed manner, choosing to embrace the simplest prose and the most compelling discourse as a way of creating Marxist critiques accessible to all. Their police procedurals are humanistic and humorous, with plots carefully crafted to entertain and flawed detectives with whom any reader can empathize. Their detectives hem and haw at the demands of the state, try to get out of riot cop duty, and try to solve as many real crimes as possible. When it is winter, and a character smokes too many cigarettes, he gets a cold.
Their vision has endured; forty years after their original publication, their work is still in print. Their message is as immediate and urgent as ever, and their combination of humor and humanism is still unmatched by their peers. Read them in order for the best experience, but to get hooked, start with The Laughing Policeman.
For fans of:
Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Craig Johnson, Carl Hiasson, and or any TV show about cops. Seriously, any. They all draw from this series.