Maj Sjöwall 1935-2020

Martin Beck co-creator

Fans of Scandi Noir, and literary crime aficionados in general, were dealt a hard blow yesterday (April 29th) with news of the death of Martin Beck co-creator Maj Sjöwall at the age of 84. Her passing comes just a few months shy of the 45th anniversary of the passing of her partner and co-author Per Wahlöö, with whom she penned the immensely popular detective novels between 1965 and 1975.

The ten books in the Martin Beck series – collectively known as “The Story of a Crime” – ushered a new kind of literary fiction in Scandinavia. Prior to their first novel, 1965’s Roseanna, Swedish crime fiction was dominated by English drawing room-style mysteries – authors like Agatha Christie and Maria Lang, whose books formed the basis of the Crimes of Passion series. These were often of the “locked room” variety, with characters who tended to be upper class and detectives who tended to be talented amateurs. It was all decidedly apolitical – but the times were changing. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, both avowed Marxists, started writing in the turbulent ‘60s and wanted their stories to reflect the issues of the day – particularly what they saw as the failures of the post-war Swedish social welfare state – and to highlight social inequalities and abuses of power.

Their hero was not a genius like Sherlock Holmes or an eccentric like Nero Wolfe. Martin Beck was just an ordinary policeman doing his job – a workaholic who neglects his wife and children, a man who is completely and utterly average. Beck leads a rotating team of similarly mundane public servants – though Gunvald Larsson might disagree with that description. The plots, often horrifying, were realistic and thoroughly researched – as was the police work. The pacing is spare and dramatic – so, too, the writing, which can also be surprisingly funny.

The Martin Beck books were hugely impactful, inspiring generations of crime writers – Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, to name a few. They have been translated into 35 languages and sold over ten million copies worldwide. The stories have been (loosely) adapted as feature films – including The Laughing Policeman (1973), with Walter Matthau as the renamed “Jake Martin” – and multiple TV series, the most successful and long-running of which is, of course, Beck with Peter Haber as Martin, Mikael Persbrandt as Guvald and, currently, Kristofer Hivju as Steinar Hovland – a character inspired by the novels’ Lennart Kollberg.

I had the good fortune of interviewing Maj Sjöwall for an MHz Networks documentary back in 2010, on a very snowy Sunday in December in Stockholm. This was the last of a big series of interviews I’d conducted that week; I was due to fly out the next morning. Maj’s interview had been coordinated by her agent and I, camera and microphone in hand, was waiting in the lobby of the Radisson Strand Hotel for her arrival. And waiting. And waiting. At some point, I glanced up and realized Beck starring Peter Haber – whom I’d interviewed the previous day – was showing on the lobby TV, an episode titled “Buried Alive”. How very appropriate. A glance out the lobby window showed the streets buried alive in still-falling snow – did I mention it was December?

Then the phone rang. Maj’s agent! She was snowed in – would I be able to meet her in her local pub for the interview? Five minutes later I was sloshing through the streets of Stockholm in a taxi. Fifteen minutes later we met at her local. Happy ending! (And now you know why there’s all the background chatter there.) The interview was the pièce de résistance of our documentary, and a fitting tribute to the godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Maj Sjöwall image used by permission of Getty Images.

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