Invisible ink: No 115 - Per Wahloo

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 18 March 2012 01:00

It often takes around 20 years for a forgotten author to be rediscovered. With the Scandinavian crime boom still rolling on, it's good to see attention returning to the first Stieg Larsson. Per Wahloo was a Swedish crime writer born in 1926 who worked as a journalist and editor of a left-wing literary magazine before turning to unusual thrillers. Sound familiar?

He's best known for his collaborative work with his partner Maj Sjowall on a series of 10 novels featuring the detective Martin Beck. The couple wrote alternate chapters and set the tales in the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm, but their style was far removed from Larsson's dense, explanatory prose. Their approach was spare and unsentimental, detailed but disciplined.

Politicised at an early age, Wahloo became a committed Marxist, and used the traditional structure of the crime novel to take a scalpel to what he saw as a morally compromised society. Beck was not a lone detective making a deductive leap but a stubborn logician relying on teamwork and methodology to solve crimes. He had a failing marriage and eventually took a liberal lover. In the earlier novels, Beck's sympathy for downtrodden criminals was never overplayed as polemic, but he slowly polarised until he came to believe that he was part of the problem rather than the solution, and grew to doubt his role as a policeman. The later books reinterpreted the lawbreakers as vanguards of revolution within an increasingly violent Swedish society.

Sadly, Wahloo died at 48 (Larsson died at 50), without getting to see his work turned into films and a successful long-running television series.

The Beck books were greatly admired, but Wahloo's two novels featuring Chief Inspector Jensen are more intellectually intriguing, even if politics drowns the suspense. Jensen lives in a soulless futuristic dystopia where Wahloo's worst fears have come to pass. Drunkenness has been criminalised, city centres have been destroyed by highways, and the population is kept sedated with junk entertainment.

In Murder on the Thirty First Floor, Jensen investigates a Murdoch-like corporation facing bomb threats, and discovers an enemy deeply rooted in a fascistic society. In The Steel Spring, he returns from hospital to find streets eerily empty and homes barricaded as an engineered epidemic conveniently purges dissenters. Jensen is no liberal hero but a puritanical conformist, and we never know if he learns from what he discovers.

Vintage has reissued both volumes.

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