Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Enduring Influence of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

In my post last week about Roseanna, the first in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, I quoted from Henning Mankell's introduction to the new edition and remarked on some parallels between Martin Beck and Mankell's Kurt Wallander. Now that I'm into the second in the series, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, I'm entertaining myself by pursuing another link between the respective oeuvres of these crime fiction greats. In The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, Beck leaves his familiar Stockholm stomping grounds to search for a Swedish journalist who has disappeared in Budapest. The search has him wandering about Eastern Europe, caught up in international intrigue at the height of the cold war. Those familiar with Mankell's work may remember that the second book in the Wallander series, The Dogs of Riga, has a similar international dimension. The novel opens with the discovery of two murder victims who have washed up on the beaches of Wallander's hometown of Ystad, Sweden. The victims are traced to the Baltic state of Latvia, and when Wallander travels there to continue his investigation, he finds himself unwittingly entangled in the violent political turmoil then flowing from the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

I've been thinking as well about Stieg Larsson's ambitious plan for a ten-book series beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, sadly cut short at three books by his premature death, and wondering if he took some inspiration from his fellow journalists turned crime writers, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who began their Beck novels with an overarching plan for a ten book series already in mind. A count of ten is a superficial link, of course, but Larsson can certainly be regarded as an heir to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in his use of the crime fiction genre as a vehicle for a sophisticated exploration of the social issues confronting Swedish society.

It's not necessary to engage in such speculation to chart the enduring influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö however, as many contemporary authors have publicly expressed their admiration for the Martin Beck novels and written of the impact that reading them has had on their own writing and on crime fiction more broadly. One need look no further than the introductions to the new Vintage Crime/Black Lizard reprints for this. I already noted that Henning Mankell wrote the introduction to Roseanna. For the second installment, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, Val McDermid does the honours. In her introduction, she identifies a number of elements that have become standard in police procedurals but that felt almost revolutionary when Sjöwall and Wahlöö originated them. This is the bit that particularly stood out for me:

The police procedural was home to a singular hero. There was no room to share the limelight. The books of Sjöwall and Wahlöö are different. Although they are generally referred to as the Martin Beck novels, they're not really about an individual. They're ensemble pieces. […] [Beck] is part of a team, each member of which is a fully realized character. His strengths and weaknesses are balanced by those of his colleagues. He relies on them as they rely on him. This is a world where ideas are kicked around, where no individual has the monopoly on shafts of brilliant insight. Nor are the repetitive tedious tasks carried out offstage by minor minions. Both action and routine are shared between Beck and his underlings. Friendships and enmities are equally tested in the course of the ten books, and everyone is portrayed as an individual who has virtues and vices in distinct measure.

And what comes next? The introductions to the reprints of books three and four, The Man on the Balcony and The Laughing Policeman, are provided by Jo Nesbø and Jonathan Franzen respectively. And for books five and six, The Fire Engine that Disappeared and Murder at the Savoy, due out in early June, it will be Colin Dexter and Arne Dahl. I can't wait to see who the publishers have got lined up for the rest. The main draw is the books themselves of course, but these introductions definitely add an extra layer of interest for me.


litlove said...

After reading your first post on the Martin Beck novels, I ordered one, and am now the owner of The Man On The Balcony (I know I ought to start with the first, but this one was cheaper...). I'm looking forward very much to reading it, even more so after this post!

Danielle said...

I'm so envious as you seem to be reading lots of mysteries at the moment. I am reading The Unseen, but it's been going slowly as I have some other 'obligation' reading that is taking up all my reading time. I have the first Makell and the first Sjowell/Wahloo as well. And I have the Larsson. I could happily start all of them, but that will only get me into more trouble than I already am in with my piles!

David Ekstrand said...

It wouldn't be surprising if Stieg Larsson's plans for a decalogue were inspired by Sjöwall/Wahlöö. Arne Dahl, who is IMO one of the very best currently active Swedish crime writers, started out writing a decalogue because Sjöwall/Wahlöö did it. Apparently, he's now changed his mind and released an eleventh book simply called "Elva" ("Eleven").

Anne said...

thanks for an excellent post! since you listed Larsson's influences (the swedish ones at least), i did a bit of research and found a listing of his British and American faves too - - strange mix of murder mystery and kids fiction!

Bedonius said...

I have to interview Maj Sjowall in a few days and, though I haven't read yet none of the Martin Beck novels, I do think there is a relation between Larsoon and them. Besides the ten books plan, or the type of novel trying to unveil the not so heavenly reality of the welfare state of Sweden, I think that there is a tribute to Martin Beck in the name of Mikael Blomkvist. (Also, I wonder if the name Lisbeth (Salander) is a wink to Lisbet Palme, the wife of Olof Palme.)

Anonymous said...

For those of you who are interested in Stieg Larsson AND Sjöwall/Wahlöö there is a Swedish site in English presenting places, photos and facts connected with their books: