When MAJ SJÖWALL and her partner PER WAHLÖÖ’s Martin Beck novels kick-started the ‘Nordic Noir’ genre and changed the way we look at policemen forever…
It might count as one of the most remarkable writing collaborations in the history of publishing. A man and a woman, a couple, sit down every evening to write. Dinner is over, their children are in bed. She’s never written a book before. He’s a published author, but not with anything like this. They write in long hand, through the night if necessary. One chapter each. The following evening they swap chapters and type them up, editing each other as they go along. They don’t argue, at least not about the words. These seem to flow naturally.
Ten years, ten books. Each book thirty chapters, three hundred chapters in all. Every one centred on the same group of middle-aged, mostly unprepossessing policemen in Stockholm’s National Homicide Department. Often, very little happens. Sometimes for pages on end. What is more, each book is a Marxist critique of society. Their mission – or “the project” as the authors call it – is to hold up a mirror to social problems in 1960s Sweden.
Unlikely as it may sound, the books have become international bestsellers, over ten million copies sold and counting. Classics of the thriller genre, they’ve been made into films and adapted for television. Subsequent generations of crime writers are fans. There’s no doubt that the latest left-leaning Swedish author to hit the bestseller lists, Stieg Larsson, would have read them. Some say the couple wrote the finest crime series ever; that without them we would not have Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.
Yet if Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö had not met, the books would not have existed; and if they hadn’t fallen in love, the books would be nowhere near as good as they are.
More than forty years have passed since they wrote together every night, filling in each other’s sentences. Today, Maj Sjöwall walks barefoot through her studio in a suburb in the south of Stockholm. Her hair is long and grey, and she’s wearing a loose-fitting linen smock. The room is light-filled and simply furnished: carefully chosen pictures, notebooks, pens, everything placed just so. One might describe it as monkish, but Sjöwall’s life has not been monkish, as I will find out. This is where she still works, aged seventy four, as a writer and a translator. There’s a single bed, a fridge, a hob, for when the small apartment that she rents nearby is too stuffy during the long Swedish summer. She lives modestly. She can not afford a car. Unlike Rankin or Mankell the books she wrote with Wahlöö have not made her very rich. There has been a modest income recently from foreign sales, but the royalties she receives from her Swedish publisher are based on old contracts. She does not sound bitter about this. “Rather free than rich,” she says.
“There has been a modest income recently from foreign sales, but the royalties she receives from her Swedish publisher are based on old contracts. She does not sound bitter about this. ‘Rather free than rich,’ she says”
Her lover and writing companion died forty four years ago, at the age of forty nine, just as their 10th book was going to press. She’s lived now far longer than they were ever together, but she’s still asked to talk about those years in the sixties. She finds this a trifle baffling. She is mystified by the insatiable appetite for crime fiction. “This is a new part of my life that I didn’t expect,” she says. We sit at a small square table, nursing cups of instant coffee. Like the books, she is direct, no nonsense, plain-speaking, although her voice is sometimes frail. “I never thought the books would last all my life, or that I’d still be thinking about them after all this time.”
I discovered “the Martin Beck series” by accident three years ago when the collection was re-issued in handsome new editions in English. Pick up one book, preferably beginning with the first, Roseanna, because they are best read in chronological order, and you become unhinged. You want to block out a week of your life, lie to your boss, and stay in bed, gorging on one after another, as though eating packet upon packet of extra strong mints. I began to worry that I was in love with Martin Beck, the main policeman. This was strange, because not only is he not a real person, he also isn’t my type. He may be empathetic and dogged but mostly he’s dour, humourless, dyspeptic, antisocial. When Sjöwall and Wahlöö invented him, the idea that a crime novel should feature a credible detective, flaws and all, was new. We’ve grown so used to our curmudgeonly fictional coppers, whether in books or on screen, that it’s easy to forget that Beck is the prototype for practically every portrayal of a policeman ever since, in this country, or America, or continental Europe.
Beck – did I mention that I’m in love with him? – shares the limelight with a group of colleagues, all equally believable, all male. There is no one hero. The policemen irritate one another in the same way that anyone who has ever worked in an office will recognise. Mannerisms grate. Tempers flare. Yet they spend more time with one another than they do with their wives – those who can hold down a marriage, that is.
The books are set in an era when everyone smoked; there were no mobile phones, or DNA samples, or the internet. They’re full of Swedish addresses which are as alien as they are unpronounceable, and as unpronounceable as they are long. Yet they don’t feel outdated or off-putting. The action is often slow yet they’re still hugely entertaining (and often very funny). Occasionally, towards the end of the series, the message becomes a little bit hectoring – you sense Wahlöö knew he was going to die, that time was running out – but by this point you’re well and truly hooked and you can forgive the lecture.
So what makes the books so compelling? There’s something inherently honourable about them, something to do with the meticulous research that went into each one before it was written, and the frail humanity of the characters. They display, say critics, a relevance and timelessness that is the mark of all good fiction. The deceptively simple style is both sparse and dramatic – an accomplishment all the more remarkable when you think that the books were written by two people. “We worked a lot with the style,” explains Sjöwall. “We wanted to find a style which was not personally his, or not personally mine, but a style that was good for the books. We wanted the books to be read by everyone, whether you were educated or not.” People tell her that the Martin Beck series marked the beginning of a lifetime of reading. “They picked them up off their parents’ shelves when they were teenagers and discovered a love of books.” Perhaps it goes back to those Marxist roots – there’s a sense that it is this, and not the volume of sales, that gives her most pleasure.
“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. We wanted the books to be read by everyone, whether you were educated or not.”
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö met in the summer of 1962, and the attraction was instant. It all sounds very bohemian and Swedish. Wahlöö was nine years older than Sjöwall, married with a daughter. In pictures he looks a bit like Jethro Tull, big hair, big nose, big eyes, big grin. He was a member of the Communist Party. A former crime reporter, he’d been deported from Spain by Franco. By the time he came across Sjöwall he was a well-regarded political journalist. Sjöwall, both a journalist and an art director, looked younger than her twenty seven years. She was pretty in a fresh-faced boyish way. One of those people who look cool without trying.
She’d also lived a little, which, I imagine, Wahlöö might have liked. Her background, like his, was middle class – oppressive and chilly. Her parents were unhappily married. Her father was the manager of a chain of hotels and she grew up on the top floor of one of them, in the centre of Stockholm. Early on, she decided that society was much like an upmarket hotel, from the wealthy guests in the penthouse to the kitchen staff peeling potatoes in the basement, and that this was inherently wrong. “When I was eleven, I realised that I did not have to live the life my mother had: school, marriage, children, apartment, summer house.”
How would she have described herself? “I think I was rather tough,” she replies. “You get tough when you grow up unloved. People described me as a boyish girl – rather shy, but I didn’t show it. I had an attitude. I was rather wild. I lied a lot because I knew the alternative was to be punished. As I got older I realised I didn’t have to lie any more and it was a nice feeling. I could be myself.”
As a teenager she went to pubs and restaurants on her own at a time when young women did not do that kind of thing. She fell in with a group of artists and musicians. At the age of twenty one she was just starting out as a journalist when she discovered she was pregnant by a man who had already left her. Her father tried to force her to have an abortion. A friend at work, twenty years her senior, took pity on her predicament and suggested they marry. “He was nice. I wasn’t very much in love with him but I admired him.” After the relationship ended she married again, this time to another older man who wanted her to live in the suburbs and have more children. This second marriage didn’t last either. She was a single mother, with a six-year-old daughter, by the time she met Wahlöö.
“We met through work first. There was a place in town much like Fleet Street where all the journalists used to meet,” she recalls. “We all went to the same pubs. Then Per and I started to like each other very much, so we started going to other pubs to avoid our friends and be on our own.” It was complicated. “I didn’t like this cheating on his wife, and he had a child. So…” she pauses, leaving the messy details in the air.
Wahlöö was commissioned to write a book which he’d work on every night in a hotel room near the bar where they drank. Each day he would drop off an envelope with the work-in-progress inside, and a note. He’d deliberately leave gaps. Why don’t you fill in this bit, he’d suggest in a letter. He’d give her a female character to invent.
It sounds incredibly intimate and clandestine. They were falling in love. They could not easily meet. So they did what came naturally – they wrote for one another. It was a love affair in words on a page, a courtship of sentences. Within a year Per had left his wife, packed a meagre pile of shirts into a suitcase, and moved in with Sjöwall and her daughter Lena. Their first son, Tetz, was born nine months later. “His wife hated me of course,” she says. “Now we are very good friends.” They would never marry. “We said, well, obviously marriage is not the thing for us,” she laughs. “We just knew we really loved each other and loved not having the papers to prove it.”
They’d discussed the idea of writing a series of crime books. They talked about the crime literature that they both liked to read, progressive writers like Georges Simenon and Dashiell Hammett, who took crime writing out of the drawing room and on to the street. Their aim was something more subversive than what had gone before. “We wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they’d only sold three hundred copies. 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.” They planned ten books and ten books only. The subtitle would be “The story of a crime” – the crime being society’s abandonment of the working classes. The first plot came to them on a canal trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. “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.”
Seven months of painstaking research followed, working out the exact geography of the crime, how everything would fit together, down to the distances Beck and his team would have to travel, how much time it would take. Each chapter was plotted beforehand like a storyboard. Then they wrote every night until the manuscript was finished. Wahlöö took it to his publisher. “Per told them: ‘This is by a friend of mine and I just want to hear what you think.'” The publisher liked what he read and guessed that his author was involved in some way. Wahlöö explained he’d written it with Sjöwall and a deal was struck for the ten books. Roseanna sold moderately well, there were even one or two good reviews. “Little old ladies took the books back to the shop, complaining that they were awful, too realistic. Crime stories in those days would not describe a naked dead woman as we did. Or describe a policeman going to bed with his wife. But on the other hand, students loved them.”
“Little old ladies took the books back to the shop, complaining that they were awful, too realistic. Crime stories in those days would not describe a naked dead woman as we did. Or describe a policeman going to bed with his wife. But on the other hand, students loved them.”
Roseanna was followed by The Man Who Went Up in Smoke and then The Man on the Balcony, each one written to the same twelve-month timetable. Their themes often followed the news agenda: paedophilia, serial killers, the sex industry, suicide. Eventually they were able to give up their day jobs, but they were never able to survive off the books alone. “Back then no one had an agent. These days crime writers get millions and millions, they can afford to live abroad,” she recalls, thinking perhaps of the phenomenal success of Henning Mankell, whose central character Kurt Wallander owes so much to Martin Beck. “We always had money problems. Sometimes I would lie awake at night wondering how to pay the rent.” There is unforeseen income now from foreign deals, but because the books have never fallen out of print the deal with her Swedish publisher is still the same as it was when they originally signed. She says she does not care. “I have enough. I stay afloat.”
Wahlöö fell ill four years before he died. First he complained of a swelling. Then the doctors said his lungs were full of water. Eventually they realised that his pancreas had burst. “Initially we thought this could be cured. We went to all kinds of doctors, but we didn’t trust any of them. Some said go on a special diet, others wanted to cut him open. In and out of hospital and all the time he was getting thinner and thinner.” By the final book, The Terrorists, he was very sick. “He knew he was going to die because he had sneaked into the professor’s room and looked at his notes.” They rented a bungalow in Màlaga and, for once, Wahlöö did most of the writing. Sjöwall took on the role of editor. “Sometimes he would just fall off the chair because he couldn’t write any more. In the morning the words would be illegible.”
I ask her how she coped. It’s hard to imagine: a relatively young woman, a dying soulmate, three children (a second son, Jens, had been born) and the pressure of a book, the final piece of “the project”, to finish. She answers with typical honesty. “Not very good, I think. I am not Florence Nightingale. I was desperate. It made me so isolated. Yet I wanted to be with him and he wanted to be with me. So we hid. There was just Per, the children and the books.”
They came home from Spain in March 1975, the book was sent to the printers and Wahlöö died in June. “He took very strong morphine tablets. Either on purpose or because, you know, if it didn’t work he took one more, if that didn’t work he’d take another one. He fell into a coma and never came round,” she says. She pauses. “His brain was not there any more. It was terrible. I was kind of praying he would die. After three weeks he did.” The relationship had lasted thirteen years.
She was, she says, with a sigh, “kind of wild for a while. With guys, with pubs.” With very little money, and three children to bring up, it sounds as though life was horribly chaotic. Over time there were other long-term relationships, but now she prefers to live on her own. “I know many guys. Some of them I have been together with for a while, some are just good friends. That is enough for me. I think I have a good life.”
There have also been writing collaborations since, one a book called The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo with the Dutch writer Tomas Ross, which was well received. Her publishers would like her to write a memoir, “but everyone’s life story is fascinating, isn’t it?” she says, dismissing the idea. She still writes fiction when she isn’t being asked to go abroad to speak about Wahlöö, and Martin Beck, and the ten books she co-wrote in her thirties. She’s never been persuaded to write an eleventh book in the series, although she does act as a consultant on a very popular Swedish television drama based on Martin Beck. She has only one regret and that is that Wahlöö never adopted her daughter, which has meant that she’s never received any money from the books, however small. “At the time we had no idea that the series would become well known.” The idea that they’d be sold all over the world would have seemed outlandish.
I wonder if the society they feared has come to pass. “Yes, all of it,” she replies. “Everything we feared happened, faster. People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming.”
So “the project” failed then?
“Yes!” she laughs. She laughs a great deal, I realise. “It failed. Of course it did. The problem was that the people who read our books already thought the same as us. Nothing changed – we changed our lives, that’s all.”
What would Wahlöö think now if he could see her, if he knew how admired their collaboration had become? There is a sharp intake of breath. “I think he would be amazed. I always think of him when we get a prize, or when I have to talk in public. I always think,” and her voice drops to a whisper, “Per would have loved this.”
MAJ SJÖWALL is a bestselling Swedish author and journalist.
LOUISE FRANCE is former Deputy Editor of The Observer Food Monthly and Observer Women.