Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1935 – 2020 / 1926 – 1975)

kctfodfesvccvydbfohnIf any crime novels deserve to be called modern classics, it is the ten police procedurals about Martin Beck and his colleagues. With them, the Swedish author duo Maj Sjöwall (1935-2020) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975), virtually created the modern detective novel. Written in the 60s and 70s, the decalogue is nothing short of a national literary treasure, with countless contemporary imitators across the world. Together, the ten books chronicle the painful creation of modern society. (Salomonsson Agency)

Maj Sjöwall (25 September 1935 – 29 April 2020) was a Swedish author and translator. She is best known for her books about inspector Martin Beck. She wrote the books in collaborative work with her partner Per Wahlöö on a series of ten novels collectively titled The Story of a Crime, published between 1965 and 1975. After the death of Per Wahlöö, she continued working amongst other things as a translator, small work in writing columns for magazines and her work as an author. Sjöwall had a 13-year relationship with Wahlöö which lasted until his death in 1975. Sjöwall died on 29 April 2020 at the age of 84 after a prolonged illness.

Per Fredrik Wahlöö (5 August 1926 – 22 June 1975) was a Swedish author. He is perhaps best known for the collaborative work with his partner Maj Sjöwall on a series of ten novels collectively titled The Story of a Crime, published between 1965 and 1975. Following school, he worked as a crime reporter from 1946 onwards. After long trips around the world he returned to Sweden and started working as a journalist again. He had a thirteen-year relationship with his colleague Maj Sjöwall but never married her, as he already was married. Per Wahlöö died in Malmö in 1975, after an unsuccessful operation on the pancreas (necessitated by cancer).

During the 1960s and 1970s Sjöwall and Wahlöö conceived and wrote a series of ten police procedural novels about the exploits of detectives from the special homicide commission of the Swedish national police; in these the character of Martin Beck was the protagonist. Both authors also wrote novels separately. For the Martin Beck series, they plotted and researched each book together, and then wrote alternate chapters simultaneously. The books cover ten years and are renowned for extensive character and setting development throughout the series. This is in part due to careful planning by Sjöwall and Wahlöö. In 1971, the fourth of the Beck books, The Laughing Policeman (a translation of Den skrattande polisen, originally published in 1968) won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel, the book was also adapted into the film The Laughing Policeman starring Walter Matthau. All of the novels have been adapted into films between 1967 and 1994, six of which featured Gösta Ekman as Martin Beck. Between 1997 and 2018 there have also been 38 films (some only broadcast on television) based on the characters, with Peter Haber as Martin Beck.

The Story of a Crime series: Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965); The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966); The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen, 1967); The Laughing Policeman (Den skrattande polisen, 1968) (Edgar Award, Best Novel, 1971); The Fire Engine That Disappeared (Brandbilen som försvann, 1969); Murder at the Savoy (Polis, polis, potatismos!, 1970); The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle, 1971); The Locked Room (Det slutna rummet, 1972); Cop Killer (Polismördaren, 1974); and The Terrorists (Terroristerna, 1975).

‘Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were truly innovative writers of detective fiction. Their books are lean and compelling crime novels but at the same time they function as unforgiving left-wing critique of Swedish society. The authors wanted to show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. Their mission and way of writing received a great deal of attention and they are often regarded as the founders of  modern Scandinavian crime fiction. Their concept was updated in the 1990s with Henning Mankell´s detective character Kurt Wallander and in the 2000s with Stieg Larsson´s Millennium trilogy featuring Lisbeth Salander. According to Henning Mankell, the couple were pioneers of realism and political engagement in the detective story: “I think that anyone who writes about crime as a reflection of society has been inspired to some extent by what they wrote,” Mankell has said.’ (Source: Nordic Noir)

‘The Story of a Crime, the collective title for ten perfectly formed books by Sjöwall & Wahlöö, hardly seems dated at all when read in the twenty-first century. The duo allowed their detective Martin Beck to investigate a variety of crimes (in their range) cast a spotlight on many aspects of Scandinavian society. And the plot potentialities afforded the duo were considerable.’ (Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, by Barry Forshaw, Pocket Essentials an imprint of Oldcastle Books, 2013).

A Guide to the Martin Beck Series 

CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child 

Maj Sjowall at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’


(Facsimile Dust Jacket, V. G. Gollancz (UK), 1968)

From Wikipedia: Roseanna is a mystery novel by Swedish writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, first published in 1965. It is the first novel in their detective series revolving around Martin Beck and his team.

Book Description: The first book in the classic Martin Beck detective series from the 1960s – the novels that shaped the future of Scandinavian crime writing. Hugely acclaimed, the Martin Beck series were the original Scandinavian crime novels and have inspired the writings of Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo. Written in the 1960s, 10 books completed in 10 years, they are the work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – a husband and wife team from Sweden. They follow the fortunes of the detective Martin Beck, whose enigmatic, taciturn character has inspired countless other policemen in crime fiction; without his creation Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander may never have been conceived. The novels can be read separately, but are best read in chronological order, so the reader can follow the characters’ development and get drawn into the series as a whole. ‘Roseanna’ begins on a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from Sweden’s beautiful Lake Vattern. Three months later, all that Police Inspector Martin Beck knows is that her name is Roseanna, that she came from Lincoln, Nebraska, and that she could have been strangled by any one of eighty-five people. With its authentically rendered settings and vividly realized characters, and its command over the intricately woven details of police detection, ‘Roseanna’ is a masterpiece of suspense and sadness. (Source: HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd)

Salomonsson Agency page

From the Introduction by Henning Mankell: Now I’m rereading the novel Roseanna on a December day forty years after its first publication. I’ve forgotten a great deal, of course, but the novel still stands strong. It’s well thought-out, well structured. It’s evident that Sjöwall and Wahlöö had carefully laid the groundwork for their plan to write ten books about the National Homicide Bureau – in fictional form but based on reality. (2006)

Roseanna has been reviewed, among others, at The Complete Review, The View from the Blue House, Crimepieces, Reviewing the Evidence, Reactions to Reading, Detectives Beyond Borders, Ms. Wordopolis Reads, Mysteries in Paradise, and DJ´s Krimiblog.

Back in 2009 my review in Spanish come and say as follows: Roseanna begins one afternoon in July when, accidentally, the body of a young woman shows up during the dredging works in one of the locks on Lake Vattern in Sweden. Her naked body makes the identification difficult. The police in Motala, the nearest town, does not manage to find anything. Deputy Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues Kollberg and Melander are dispatched from Stockholm to investigate the case. The process is slow but with determination Beck and his colleagues try to find the missing pieces. Who that young woman was? How she ended up there? Who killed her? The book’s pace follows the investigation tempo. The case proceeds very slowly at first, allowing the reader to become familiar with the different characters, their characteristics and their personality. Then the pace begins to increase and it grows as the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together.

Roseanna, perhaps, is not the best novel in the series, but  it is sufficiently attractive as to read it in one sitting, besides being the first in the series. This is important since the authors originally planned the series as a sequence of novels under a common title and, reading them in its chronological order will allow us to better appreciate the evolution of every character.  

%d bloggers like this: