BEING A READER, Crime books

Sjöwall and Wahlöö – taking crime to the gatan where it belongs

After reading seven Swedish crime novels in a couple of weeks, I’m even beginning to think of street names as Thisgatan and Thatgatan. But even more curious is the fact that Swedish crime books have become so popular in the English-speaking world.

Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson may have become popular on their own merits anyway, but perhaps neither of them would even have written crime stories if it hadn’t been for the police procedurals their compatriots Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote in the 1960s and 70s. They are the people who laid the foundation for the success of Swedish crime stories in the wider world.

Had Sjöwall and Wahlöö been Norwegian or Latvian, perhaps we would have had a spate of popular crime books from those countries today.

I have now in short succession read a book by Mankell, Larsson’s three and three by Sjöwall and Wahlöö. While reading Larsson was a first, I had read the other authors before. Mankell I liked from the start, but think now that I had underestimated Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s achievement at first.

Their books are dry, police procedurals written like police reports. On this day, this happened. Then nothing happened for a couple of days and then a lot happened on the Tuesday. The weather was like this. At 11.47, a man walked into a hotel lobby. He had a large nose and close-set blue eyes…That sort of thing.

Though I was a crime reporter for a brief period in my twenties, I cannot claim to know much about how the police really operate. However, I can well imagine that Sjöwall and Wahlöö get closer to the truth than most crime writers. They seem to enjoy describing the drudgery of an investigation in detail, all the dead ends and the interminable waiting.

If you want to skim from major event to major event, you miss the essence of this series.

A common denominator of the books I’ve read is the long time that passes between the crime and its being solved – it could be many months. Another is that the crimes are often solved by a lucky break away from the main investigative team, a local cop on the beat who spots something useful, rather than by the strict application of logic, carefully compiled evidence or psychological insight that usually feature in fictional crime busting.

Basically, Martin Beck and his team of detectives stick doggedly to their task until that break comes, so it’s not sheer luck. Their chief virtues are thoroughness and persistence.

The characters are also very unromanticised. Martin Beck is not only a very ordinary man with an ordinary home life, but his crime solving ability does not seem to be exceptional or beyond the realm of probability. This is most unusual for a fictional detective. As indicated above, he doesn’t get sudden insights that solve the crimes. The only gifted character is his colleague Melander, who has a phenomenal memory, one that puts the detectives on the wrong track about as often as it helps.

The only element where these books stretch the reader’s credibility even slightly is the portrayal of the two klutzes Kvant and Kristiansson – blonde, handsome patrolmen who appear in some of the books and are virtually guaranteed to get things wrong.

Much has been made of the authors’ Marxist leanings and the social commentary in the series. As can be expected, the rich murder victim in Murder at the Savoy is portrayed as hateful – an arms smuggler who trod on the lives of little people. There are many comments on the decline of sexual morals and growing drug abuse, though much of the described behaviour seems rather pale compared to the world described in more recent crime novels.

Rather than social commentary, what gives Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books their power is their verisimilitude. We recognise their truth, which makes the relatively unsensational crimes in these books more shocking than the outrages in the books of Mankell and Larsson.

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