The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

This week’s much loved crime is an homage from crime writer Quentin Bates to one of the world’s great series of novels

A pair of weird names stood out from the bookshelf. This was a long time ago, some time in the middle of the 1970s and I was a schoolboy with my nose almost permanently in a book. The two odd names were on a row of paperbacks on my Mum’s bookshelf among the Ed McBains and the collections of Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith that still fill the old lady’s bookshelves today.

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

The odd pairing was too much to resist. With only a vague idea of idea how to pronounce the two names, I was hooked within a couple of pages. There was no internet then, no easily googled information, but the scant blurb inside the books indicated that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were a husband-and-wife pair of crime writers from Sweden. That was it. It was years before I found out any more about them and the books that opened a whole new world.

The lives and attitudes of Martin Beck, Gunvald Larsen, Einar Rönn, Fredrik Melander Lennart Kollberg and their wives, girlfriends superiors and colleagues, not least the boneheaded patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson (plus Kvastmo, who stepped in after Kvant was killed), were a revelation to this spotty, bookish teenager.

This was proper gritty crime, like the American stuff, but it was so much better, set in Europe and somehow it was just more believable. There was something entirely credible about the lives of these flawed Swedish coppers and it was a world away from comfy drawing rooms and hard-bitten fedora-hatted gumshoes.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

Sweden was a distant country then, a byword for blondes and skinny dipping, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö showed a seamier, more realistic side to this Scandinavian utopia, still with a level of permissiveness and freedom in spite of its flaws that was a world away from English suburbia. There was a subtle undercurrent of social commentary in the books that was missing from other crime fiction and gave the stories a hard edge. It was only years later that I discovered the authors had been committed Marxists and that the Martin Beck novels had been written as a social commentary on the ills of Swedish society.

The writing is still as fresh today as it was then. It’s spare prose with no wasted space. If you disregard the fact that there are no mobile phones and that Martin Beck and his colleagues travel by bus, then they could be set today.

Once I found that there was a series of ten, the gaps in Mum’s shelves were plugged with visits to the library and before long I had read the lot. Then… nothing. There wasn’t any more Scandinavian crime to be had in English. Apart from a few oddities that turned up that weren’t easily found in a pre-internet age, it wasn’t until Miss Smilla and her unique feeling for snow appeared on the scene that we Brits had a similarly insightful peek into Scandinavia’s nuts and bolts.

The rest is history and these days we’re spoilt for choice. But I still have a row of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books, one or two of them much-thumbed copies that never did find their way back to Mum’s bookshelves all those years ago. Almost fifty years on, the Martin Beck novels still hold their own among the flood of Nordic crime now available in English, and practically every Nordic crime writer (the small group of Nordic pretenders included) is indebted to to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Book Details:

author: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote a total of ten novels in the Martin Beck series which is collectively known as The Story of a Crime. In publication date order they are

  1. Roseanna,
  2. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke
  3. The Man on the Balcony
  4. The Laughing Policeman
  5. The Fire Engine that Disappeared
  6. Murder at the Savoy
  7. The Abominable Man
  8. The Locked Room
  9. Cop Killer
  10. The Terrorists

original language: Swedish
translators: varied
publication date (UK): Roseanna was first published in 1966, The Terrorists in 1975.

Contributor Details:

Quentin Bates was born in the UK, spent a gap year decade in Iceland and is now a journalist and crime fiction writer with a series of novels featuring a widowed police sergeant serving on a rural Icelandic force. For more visit his website or follow him on twitter.


3 thoughts on “The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

  1. How appropriate to post this here: This series was one of Maxine Clarke’s favorites. She often referred to them on the Petrona blog and always favorably as the prime example of how mysteries should be written. They show that crime fiction can be written well without going into several hundred pages. These books are tightly written and short, while telling a story and even giving character development — and a critique of Swedish society.
    These books should be used in writing classes to show students how a good mystery can be written.
    This series is a favorite of a multitude of mystery aficionados worldwide. And they’ve stood the test of time since their mid-sixties to mid-seventies publications.

  2. I recently read all ten in sequence and loved them. I agree with all the praise given them above and would like to add that they are also very funny. There’s even a bit of Keystone Cops slapstick in them. I’d also like to point out their debt to American crime writer Ed McBain, whose 87th Precint novels really set the stage for the Martin Beck series.

  3. Have been to Edinburgh this week to hear Maj Sjowall interviewed by Ian Rankin. A marvellous lady: so entertaining. She pointed out that they hadn’t read Ed McBain before they started the series but that they had been responsible for the Swedish translations. Looking forward to reading these now!

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