Maj Sjowall: Master of Nordic noir who co-created the Martin Beck series

She was lauded for her bleak but humorous fiction, and helped to create the template of a less heroic, more problem-laden detective

Unlike modern-day Scandi-noir writers, Sjowall never got rich from her work, largely because it was subject to early contracts with her Swedish publishers
Unlike modern-day Scandi-noir writers, Sjowall never got rich from her work, largely because it was subject to early contracts with her Swedish publishers

Swedish crime novelist Maj Sjowall, who has died aged 84, was often called the godmother of the literary genre dubbed “Nordic noir”, later also known as Scandi-noir. Her best-known creation was Martin Beck, the subject of a massively popular series about a Swedish homicide detective in mournful middle age, lugubrious and ill-tempered.

Her fiction – bleak but often humorous – grew out of the work of crime writers such as Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct series), Dashiell Hammett (with his private detective Sam Spade) and Georges Simenon (French police inspector Jules Maigret).

But Sjowall’s Beck series – widely translated and selling tens of millions of copies – helped to inspire a popular subgenre of problem-laden rather than heroic policemen. One of her Beck novels was turned into an acclaimed 1973 film, The Laughing Policeman, a crime thriller starring Walter Matthau, with the gory action transposed to San Francisco from the original Stockholm setting.

Most of Sjowall’s books, including all 10 Beck novels, were co-written with Per Wahloo, who died in 1975. They had never married, though their early publishers billed them as a husband-and-wife team on the book jackets of their English-language editions to avoid upsetting the sensibilities of those less liberated than the Swedes.

The Beck series was built around the eponymous detective and his (all-male) mixed-up cops in the Swedish National Homicide Bureau. What set the books, and subsequent movie and TV versions, apart was Sjowall and Wahloo’s backdrop of crime, brutality and poverty lurking beneath the well-publicised vision of Sweden’s healthy welfare state and its better-off blue-eyed, blond population.

Wahloo had been a committed Marxist. Sjowall was too, though she later preferred to be called a socialist. “We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer,” she once told The Guardian.

The Beck novels were set in the 1960s and 1970s. The police station was smoke-filled, and the detectives relied on desk phones, frontline street work, contacts, snitches and often heavy-handed methods.

Nevertheless, modern audiences continued to be drawn to their depiction of bleak landscapes, complex moralities, troubled or even mentally unstable officers, and plot lines focused on rape and racism. The work of Sjowall and Wahloo influenced TV shows such as The Killing, The Bridge, Bordertown, Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Maj Sjowall was born in Stockholm in 1935. Her father was manager of a Swedish hotel chain, and she grew up in a top-floor hotel room with round-the-clock room service.

She became sensitive about her privileged status at the hotel in stark contrast to the treatment of the low-paid staff, many from ethnic minorities. Such inequality would shape her life and her writing.

At the age of 21 she fell pregnant by a young man who had already left her. Ignoring her father’s insistence on an abortion, she married a family friend in his forties, magazine editor Gunnar Isaksson, and had a daughter from her earlier relationship. The marriage ended in 1958, and she subsequently married and divorced another older man, photographer Hans Flodquist.

After several years working as a journalist, art director and English-Swedish translator at various publications, she met Per Wahloo, a left-wing journalist with a wife and child. After Wahloo left his wife, he and Sjowall went on to have two sons.

Having decided on what they called a literary “project” – ambitiously planning 10 crime novels featuring Beck – they set to work. After putting the kids to bed, they sat across the dining table from each other, often writing into the night. Each would hand-write a chapter. The next night, each would edit and type up the other’s chapter.

Sjowall recalled to The Observer how she got the theme for her first book with Wahloo, Roseanna, published in 1965, while they were on a boat trip: “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.”

Unlike modern-day Scandi-noir writers, Sjowall never got rich from her work, largely because it was subject to early contracts with her Swedish publishers. After Wahloo’s death, she returned to a more bohemian life. She continued to write, and also translated into Swedish the American private-eye novels of Robert B Parker.

She won the 1971 Edgar Award for best mystery novel from the Mystery Writers of America, for The Laughing Policeman. In 1990 she published another thriller, The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo, in collaboration with the Dutch writer Tomas Ross. She disliked writing on her own and declined many offers to restart the Beck series.

She is survived by her three children.

Maj Sjowall, writer, born 25 September 1935, died 29 April 2020

© Washington Post

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