I very much enjoyed reading Tom Nolan's WSJ interview (by email) with the 73-year-old Maj Sjowall, who "hasn't published any crime fiction since the death of her husband 34 years ago. But all around her she sees the fictional progeny of Martin Beck, including Kurt Wallander. "Yes," she writes, "we seem to have created a model for the Swedish police procedural, and most of the authors that write them call themselves social critics as well. . . . That, I think, is something to be proud of." "
Although (for me) the start of the WSJ piece is a tedious lead-in, focusing on the Branagh/Wallender TV films based on the books by Henning Mankell currently airing in the USA, the main part of the article is fascinating.
Maj Sjowall reveals that the series of 10 Martin Beck novels, which she wrote with her husband Per Wahloo in part to analyse criminality in a changing society from a Marxist perspective, were published at a time when Swedish crime stories were "Agatha Christie-like", rarely featuring police detectives. Sjowall and Wahloo aimed to create a "credible, trustworthy, Swedish civil servant with empathy and real concern." Having so far read eight of the ten books in the Martin Beck series, I believe they succeeded.
Sjowall also scotches the story that the Martin Beck series was modelled on or inspired by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels. She tells Nolan that she and Wahloo had never heard of McBain, but that a review of their second or third Beck novel compared it to McBain and Hillary Waugh. The Swedish authors then read these books and as a result urged their publisher to buy the rights. He did, and asked them to translate them. Sjowall and Wahloo translated a dozen of the 87th Precinct novels and so became cast as McBain's followers and imitators.
The WSJ piece goes on to accord Sjowall and Wahloo their (already undisputed) place as the parents of the Swedish police procedural with a perspective of social criticism. Sjowall comments on the lack of financial rewards for authors, saying that she and her husband could quit their jobs as journalists only when their novels were translated into German. She also comments on the various films and TV series made of the books, but connects to only one of these, Bo Widerberg's The Man on the Roof, which was adapted from the book The Man on the Balcony.
Photo of Maj Sjowall: Sydsvenskan.se (2005).