Culture / Obituary

She Described Herself as “Rather Wild”: Remembering Maj Sjöwall


Widely regarded as the godmother of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, MAJ SJÖWALL was the co-author of Martin Beck – a series remarkable as much for the way it was written as for its impact on crime-writing internationally…

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö met in 1962, working as journalists and translators in Stockholm. She was 27, twice divorced and a single mother; he was 36, married and with one child. They were instantly attracted to each other, sharing a love of leftwing politics and detective stories. Influenced by the crime novels of Georges Simenon and Ed McBain, they developed a ‘project’ to do something different, conceiving a series of ten books, with each of them writing alternate chapters. When completed, it became a single Marxist critique of Swedish society.

In Roseanna (1965), the first Beck novel, a naked body is dredged out of a canal. It takes Beck and his colleagues, in the days before DNA, seven months of methodical, unglamorous police work to snare the killer. Not only were the novels painstakingly researched and unflinching, but each chipped away at an aspect of contemporary Swedish life to reveal (as the authors saw it) a growing materialism and heartlessness. In the character of Martin Beck, their dogged, dyspeptic, chain-smoking policeman, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set a new template for fictional detectives. A DNA trace on many of today’s troubled detective heroes worldwide, both on page and screen, could well turn up Swedish ancestry.

Sjöwall was born and grew up in Stockholm, where she lived in one of the hotels managed by her father. She described her young self as “rather wild”, rebelling against her middle-class background. Aged 21, and not long launched in journalism, Sjöwall found she was pregnant by a former boyfriend. Under pressure from her father, she married an older colleague, but this, and a second marriage, didn’t last. Soon afterwards she met Wahlöö. He had been ill for some years by the time the Martin Beck project was completed (in 1975), and died shortly before its publication, aged 49. The books remained in print and numerous television incarnations followed, but Sjöwall resisted the temptation to continue or expand the series, claiming that it would feel “too lonely” to do so without her partner.

Current trends in crime fiction, the books, part two ...

“After Wahlöö died, Sjöwall resisted the temptation to continue or expand the series, claiming that it would feel ‘too lonely’ to do so without her partner”.

Sjöwall returned to the bohemian life she favoured, writing for magazines, co-authoring a number of books and translating the American private eye novels of Robert B Parker into Swedish. She also began to appear as an uncredited extra in episodes of the Swedish Beck series, which ran from 1997 to 2009, and was revived in 2015. She also regularly appeared at literary festivals and conventions, including at Crimefest, Bristol in 2015, where she was interviewed as the international guest of honour by Lee Child.

Despite the critical success of the Martin Beck novels (the fourth, The Laughing Policeman, being filmed by Hollywood in 1976 with Stockholm replaced by San Francisco), the financial returns for the authors were modest, and Sjöwall often said the couple had “money problems”. There was a revival of interest in the Beck books during the 1990s, but there were to be no financial rewards for Sjöwall, as rights for the books were still based on contracts signed earlier. It was something she seemed to accept phlegmatically in public, and recalling her cold and estranged childhood in a 2009 interview she admitted “you get tough when you grow up unloved.”

It is ironic that the millions generated through an irresistible rise of modern  crime fiction should owe so much to a couple of Marxist-leaning journalists, writing at the kitchen table and trying to make ends meet. But such is the legacy of Maj Sjöwall. She is survived by her daughter Lena, her sons Tetz and Jens, and five grandchildren.

MAJ SJÖWALL was born on 25th December 1935. She died on 29th April 2020.

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This article has also been published in The Guardian.


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