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.

10 thoughts on “Observer interview with Maj Sjowall

  1. I did a little happy clap when I saw this article in the Observer mag this morning – my Other Half claims it’s the reason he bought the paper because he knew I’d want to read this particular article.
    I agree with you: it’s really good. She seems like such a down-to-earth person, doesn’t she, and slightly bewildered by the fascination with her and her late husband all these years later.
    I have only ever read the most famous one in the collection: The Laughing Policeman. But I do have several others in my TBR. I really must dig them out for a read very soon.

  2. Maxine – Thanks for this insight! I’m really unfamilliar with Sjowall and Wahloo’s work, but learning about them like this has really sparked my interest. I always like learning about new authors – or should I say, new to me. Time to start looking for those books, I think.

  3. ‘Why don’t we start the book by killing this woman?’Why indeed. I am glad they did as Roseanna is still one of their very best in my eyes.
    Thank you for finding and chewing yet another interesting article for your readers!

  4. Thanks Maxine, for the information about the article about Sjowall and Wahloo.
    What I find fascinating is that they were so frighteningly accurate with their predictions.
    Reading some of the series after a gap of decades from my first introduction to them I am also struck by the fact they are just such good stories with superb characterization and wonderful black humour. Off out to brave the winter weather to buy an Observer.

  5. As I read the article this morning, going through my mind was: “I wonder what Maxine will think of this?”, for you have written with such acuity on this and associated issues of late. I rather revere Sjowall and Wahloo and it bothers me considerably reading some material uttered about them that, as recently with Stieg Larsson, there may be misrepresentation, sometimes deliberate, leading to misunderstanding. This piece does well in the way of a corrective, as also does your post. I’m particularly pleased that you brought out her words re the market economy. That is really what much of crime literature in this mode is about, when you get to the root and essence of the problems addressed, and her words there reminded me again of something Michael Sandel said in his Reith Lectures earlier this year: We used to have a market economy, now we ARE a market economy.

  6. I have now read the article on line as I could not wait to get the newspaper. What a wonderful contrast to the snide Vanity Fair effort.
    It may seem rather sad that Maj Sjowall is not wealthy from the sale of the books, film and TV rights, but I get the impression that she would rather have the universal respect for their work than mere money. An attitude that fits nicely with the message of the books.

  7. Thank you everyone for these great comments. Let’s hope that the Observer article encourages more people to read these novels, which do epitomise so much of what is the best about the detective fiction genre.
    Agreed, Norman, money can’t buy you happiness, trite but true. Also interesting in view of the Stieg inheritance saga that Sjowall’s daughter could not receive any of what wealth there was after Wahloo died becuase he did not formally adopt her.
    I don’t know if this is still possible, but for some time The Book People were selling the 10-volume Martin Beck series for the all-in price of £9.99, which is a crazily brilliant bargain. They are published by Harper Perennial, and many of them feature excellent introductions by the likes of Andrew Taylor, Michael Connelly etc, on the influence these authors had on their own writing.

  8. Well done to the Observer and Maxine–as result of
    which ‘Roseanna’ –the first in the series -has moved
    up the Amazon best sellers chart from 1909 to 332
    in the last 24 hours.
    I have read all 10 and apsrt from being hugely
    influential -they are a delight.

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