Observer interview with Maj Sjowall

The couple of recent magazine articles about Stieg Larsson and his Millennium trilogy, one in Prospect magazine and the other in Vanity Fair, were rather disappointing: a mix of rehash of the already well known and not very well-informed opinion on the part of the writers. These articles, I felt, were more to do with their writers showing off their intellectual credentials (not, as it happens!) to their readers, than with conveying anything constructive about the appeal of these books and their author's story.

Completely different from these two pieces in almost every way is a superb piece in today's Observer (22 Nov), by Louise France, about Maj Sjowall. Although I know the 10-book Martin Beck series, written by Sjowall and her partner Per Wahloo during the 1960s and 70s, and have read several articles about the authors and their novels, I learnt a lot while reading it, and found it very moving.

Sjowall did not become rich by writing these masterful books; she lives in a small flat and cannot afford a car, but she's happy and "free" as she defines it. The article tells the story of Sjowall's early life, how she met Per Wahloo, and how they came to write the Martin Beck books. Louise France, a fan of the novels, is right to point out how they still hold up today as exciting, involving detective stories even without the internet, email, faxes, DNA profiling and mobile phones, because they rely on tight plots, characterisation and have a strong authorial voice. Or, as she puts it: "what makes the books so compelling? There's something inherently honourable about them, something to do with the meticulous research that went into each one before it was written, and the frail humanity of the characters. They display, say critics, a relevance and timelessness that is the mark of all good fiction. The deceptively simple style is both sparse and dramatic – an accomplishment all the more remarkable when you think that the books were written by two people. "We worked a lot with the style," explains Sjöwall. "We wanted to find a style which was not personally his, or not personally mine, but a style that was good for the books. We wanted the books to be read by everyone, whether you were educated or not." People tell her that the Martin Beck series marked the beginning of a lifetime of reading. "They picked them up off their parents' shelves when they were teenagers and discovered a love of books." "

When they first met, Sjowall and Wahloo enjoyed reading the same type of detective fiction, those that had taken the genre out of the drawing room and onto the streets – Hammett and Simenon, for example. For their own novels, "Their aim was something more subversive than what had gone before. "We wanted to describe society from our left point of view [says Sjowall]. Per had written political books, but they'd only sold 300 copies. We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer." They planned 10 books and 10 books only. The subtitle would be "The story of a crime" – the crime being society's abandonment of the working classes. The first plot came to them on a canal trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. "There was an American woman on the boat, beautiful, with dark hair, always standing alone. I caught Per looking at her. 'Why don't we start the book by killing this woman?' I said." " That idea, of course, became Roseanna, the first book in the Martin Beck series.

Did the society that Sjowall and Wahloo feared come to pass? "Yes, all of it," she replies. "Everything we feared happened, faster. People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming."

There's lots more in this excellent article, so I do recommend reading it. Perhaps, if you haven't read any of these novels, it might encourage you to try one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

See also: Maj Sjowall interviewed at the WSJ.

Reviews of the Martin Beck novels at Euro Crime, including several by me.