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Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: The Martin Beck Series

Updated: Jun 22

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, are widely regarded as the pioneers of Scandinavian crime fiction. Both left-wing journalists, they met in 1962 and fell in love. While they never married, they lived together, with the children from their previous marriages. Over the decade that followed, they collaborated on a unique writing project. 10 novels written over ten years, each with 30 chapters, and focused on the National Homicide Bureau in Sweden - the Martin Beck series. The Story of a Crime, they called it.

The couple would write alternate chapters, mostly at the kitchen table at night, after putting their children to bed. They would then swap chapters the next day and edit each other's work before moving on. They found and agreed on a tone and style that worked for them both and were consistent with it. It's impossible to tell them apart on the page. In an interview Sjowall said “We worked a lot with the style. We wanted to find a style which was not personally his, or not personally mine, but a style that was good for the books."

Mere entertainment was not their purpose though. What they wanted to do was to use crime and criminal investigations to hold up a mirror to Swedish society. They believed that crime novels could effectively include social criticism. Each of their ten novels was based on painstaking research, the crimes were fairly gruesome, and through each story, they tried to highlight what they saw as the increasingly materialistic culture they saw around them.

"We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.” (Sjöwall, in an interview with the Guardian, Nov 22, 2009)

Their influences included crime writers such as Ed MacBain, Georges Simenon and Dashiell Hammett.

With the ten novels comprising the Martin Beck series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö are credited with introducing the 'police procedural'. Criminal investigation in their books is not heroic or thrilling. It is long hours and days and weeks of dogged police work, many times leading nowhere. But Beck and his colleagues keep at it. Beck as a character is dour and dyspeptic, not a hero by any standards. But he is a committed policeman and a patient one. The characters are all ordinary. There is no genius at work here who can see what no one else can. They look at everything together and painstakingly piece together a solution. And this is in the age before mobile phones, DNA testing and the internet. An age when everyone smoked all the time. Today most cops or detectives in books or on TV shows are dour and cheerless and we are used to this, but Beck was the prototype for this sort of detective.

The books are international bestsellers, with over 10 million copies sold so far. They’ve been made into films and adapted for television. Sjowall and Wahloo’s work has inspired crime writers such as Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Michael Connelly, and many others. Established now as classics of the genre, readers of any generation can appreciate the meticulous procedurals stitched together by this couple. Per Wahlöö died at the age of 49 shortly before the final book in the series was published. Sjöwall declined to continue or expand the series without her partner.

Here are the ten books in the Martin Beck series:

  1. Roseanna (1965)

  2. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

  3. The Man on the Balcony (1967)

  4. The Laughing Policeman (1968)

  5. The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

  6. Murder at The Savoy (1970)

  7. The Abominable Man (1972)

  8. The Locked Room (1973)

  9. Cop Killer (1975)

  10. The Terrorists) (1976)

Sources include:


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