As a young man, I was fascinated by Swedish cinema. In particular, the films of Ingmar Bergman were a revelation to my undergraduate mind. The image of Death playing chess on the beach with Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal has lingered forever, imprinting on my brain Swedish melancholy and obsession with life’s fragility.
Later, of course, many of us were delighted by the seeming contrast of Abba, with its youthful enthusiasm, physical beauty and joie de vie. Yet even Abba, as their marriages fell apart under the pressures and strains of success, produced songs that turned to despair, such as One of Us and Under Attack. Indeed, after the release of their final album, one critic suggested that Bergman sign Abba to provide a soundtrack for his films!
Björn Ulvaeus himself has said ‘Our songs may sound happy but deep inside, they are not….[Our music] has that Nordic melancholic feeling to it.' (The Guardian, 11 April 2014).
Does this psychology have something to do with the light in Sweden or lack of it? On New Year’s Day, Stockholm receives just over six hours of daylight – little enough to give anyone a bad dose of Seasonal Affective Disease. In contrast, Stockholm has over eighteen hours of daylight in mid-summer. Too much of a good thing perhaps? Or is it the freezing temperatures and year-round rain – Stockholm has 173 rainy days a year?
What I did not know was that while Bergman explored the Swedish character on the screen in the 1960s, a young Swedish couple named Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were busily delving into Swedish society in a series of novels revolving around Inspector Martin Beck of the Stockholm police. Starting in 1965, they published ten Beck novels, writing together after they had put their children to bed. Although they took turns writing the chapters, the finished books are seamless. And true to Swedish tradition, Beck becomes more morose as the series progresses and more obsessed with his work. His marriage too, collapses as he becomes more distance and detached from his wife and more focussed on his inner needs and drives.
This fine series has been republished in English translation over the last few years, in some cases with an introduction by well-known crime writers like Henning Mankell, admired for his Kurt Wallender novels and Val McDermid, famous for the Wire in the Blood TV series, among other achievements. Nicci French, another writing couple named Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, also contributed an introduction.
McDermid, in her introduction to the second Martin Beck book, says ‘It’s almost impossible to grasp how revolutionary they felt .. so many of the elements that have become integral in the police procedural sub-genre started life in these ten novels.’
‘Whoever is writing crime fiction after these novels is inspired by them in one way or another,’ adds Henning Mankell. (See more at: http://inside.org.au/paradise-lost/#sthash.snoyr6ko.dpuf).
McDermid singles out wonderful plotting, strong character development, subtle social criticism and an emphasis on teamwork and procedure in solving crimes as key features of their work. I would counterpoise that by suggesting that much of the interest in the books comes from the rivalries if not outright hatreds and workplace bullying between the detectives – which often drive the plot and force their investigations forward. At times, Beck becomes almost a secondary character and several others are given prominence as they each recount their own investigations. Mostly, like Beck, they are a melancholy lot.
Gerrard and French point out that Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s policemen ‘are plagued by doubts about what it is to be policemen and what they are for.’ Society itself often seems to create the opportunities that facilitate crime - as well as the weak characters who are only too happy to seize them.
Yet, somehow, Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s stories are gripping, driven by a logic that creates gratification at the end – ‘Yes! I knew it had to be that way.’
‘The Locked Room’ has one of the most satisfying plot structures I’ve ever come across in detective fiction, even though the investigation is an exercise in bungles, while ‘The Laughing Policeman’ sets up a most intriguing conundrum which yields only to the most intensive investigation. As is so often the case in crime fiction, past and present intersect violently.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö love to introduce multiple plotlines which at first seem unrelated. The reader can have fun working out the connections because sure enough, they will be connected!
Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s villains are complex and are often seen as inevitable products of a failing social model. At times, the villains are deeply engrossing characters in their own right. Mauritzon in ‘The Locked Room’ is one such study - a thorough villain but a multifaceted personality with many redeeming features. I even grew to quite like him in a way and felt sorry for him at the end - which I won’t spoil for you!
Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote from the far left of Swedish society and rather than seeing the Swedish Welfare State as an advanced form of caring in a harsh market-driven world, they viewed it as a means of preventing genuine change towards a better life for all. In their view, social democracy was not a very successful model. Gerrard and French state that ‘[Their] investigation is a snapshot in disenchantment, of poking beneath the surfaces of Swedish complacency and discovering what’s beneath, and it’s invariably corrupt or depraved.’ And, I’d add, fascinating!
Like many others, Sjöwall and Wahlöö tempered their views in later life and moved back to the centre of politics.
And then there’s Mankell. Interestingly, he married Ingmar Bergman’s daughter Eva in 1998.
More on Mankell in another blog post.