The Godmother of Nordic Noir

Look up Maj Sjöwall or her late writing partner Per Wahlöö in Wikipedia and you’ll find only a paragraph or two dedicated to each of them. But more than half a century ago these two Swedish crime writers created a form of crime writing that we now refer today as Nordic Noir.

They wrote only 10 crime books together in the 1960s and 1970s until the death of Wahlöö at the age of 48 from cancer. But they recalibrated crime writing based on real social issues and police procedurals. Their books featured Martin Beck, a tenacious Swedish policeman and his team in homicide.

Sjöwall, who celebrates her 80th birthday next month, is hailed by writers like Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø as the Godmother of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

She was given a standing ovation at the recent Crimefest in Bristol after being interviewed on stage by Lee Child. Sjöwall, a modest and unassuming lady, could have done without the intrusion of her privacy, but it was unavoidable as she was there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. She was also followed around Bristol by a Swedish TV crew making a documentary about her work.

Sjöwall, a former Marxist, was brought up in a hotel managed by her father and as a child saw Nazis in the hotel. German soldiers travelling on leave between Norway and Germany were allowed passage through neutral Sweden – the so-called permittenttrafik. “Everything stopped in Sweden during the war,” she told Child. “The borders were closed. There was no traffic.”

When she was a teenager she saw many of her friends travelling to exciting places like Paris, but she was not allowed to go abroad. Then in the 1960s, Sweden, like other parts of Europe, saw its fair share of left wing agitation in the form of student protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

To the outside world, Sweden looked a free and easy place to live, she explained but in reality the country was moving more to the right and becoming a capitalist state. Sjöwall claimed that the country’s reputation of being some sort of “idealistic” state was nothing more than a “PR exercise” that clouded the fact that the country was lurching to the right.

She met Wahlöö while he was a journalist as she needed someone to translate Father Brown stories for the publishing house she was working for. She’d already been twice divorced when she met Wahlöö who was nine years her senior and already married. But he eventually left his wife and they lived together, producing two sons and 10 crime books.

They were influenced by writers like Chandler, Hammett, and Simenon, but she said they did not want to write like someone else. The aim was not to have just a hero but a team.

Ed McBain’s police procedural style was also an influence but Sjöwall told Child that it was not true that they copied him.

Most Swedish crime novelists at that time, according to Sjöwall, were “bourgeois” and did not write about policemen but characters who happen to stumble upon crime. Wahlöö, who was also a Marxist, wanted to do something different. He was keen to show a critique of Swedish society, using the police procedural format as the vehicle.

So they planned a book and allotted each other chapters.They would sit opposite each other writing into the night, having put their kids to bed.

Roseanna, their first collaboration, sold moderately well despite crime books not being a particularly popular genre in Sweden in those days. Martin Beck was the rather typical civil servant who was boring and dutiful, she said. She admitted that it was a gamble to have such a boring character, but the point was to show how real human beings work.

They were criticised for showing the private lives of policemen, something which would today sound odd as so many crime books are about romance. But she feels that the genre has in fact gone too much in this direction as the books seem to now over dwell on the personal lives of detectives.

Their fourth book together, The Laughing Policeman, won an Edgar Award in 1971 from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel and was later adapted into a film starring Walter Matthau.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö had only planned to write 10 crime books together although they saw it as one big novel about crime split into ten stories. The last book was completed before he died.

Child asked her whether they would have continued to write more had Wahlöö lived? Her answer was yes, although it would not have been about crime but about modern warships.

Since Wahlöö’s passing 40 years ago, she has collaborated with other authors from time to time, but she admitted in recent years she does not like to sit on her own to write. “It’s too lonesome. So I write short stories or articles, poetry and texts for my friends. I write when I have an idea but I won’t be publishing again.”

When asked by Child why she thought Nordic Noir was so popular? She said, “I don’t know, it’s not that fantastic.”

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

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