By Wendy Lesser May 6, 2020
Sometime in the early eighties, I began reading a series of mysteries that featured a Swedish homicide detective named Martin Beck. I was living in Berkeley at the time, studying for a Ph.D. in English literature as I worked a variety of part-time jobs, and I knew a lot of people both inside and outside the academy. Being a talkative sort, I started telling everyone around me about this incredible Scandinavian cop series. Soon we were all reading it.
What I knew at the time was that it was written by a couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who had from the very beginning envisioned it as a sequence of ten books that would portray Swedish society from a distinctly Marxist perspective. Published between 1965 and 1975, the Martin Beck series grew noticeably darker as it moved toward its end—though whether this was because Sweden itself (not to speak of the world beyond it) had worsened during that decade, or because Per Wahlöö had learned in the early seventies that he was dying of cancer, was something no one could answer. Wahlöö died, I later learned, on the exact day in June of 1975 when the tenth volume was published in Sweden, having worked like a maniac to finish it on time. (Sjöwall, who was his equal partner in many ways—they would write their alternating chapters at night, so as not to be interrupted by their small children, and would then exchange chapters for editing—has said that at the very end Wahlöö was pretty much writing everything himself.) At any rate, he left behind exactly what he had intended to produce: ten books containing thirty chapters each, which, taken together, constitute a single continuous social narrative comparable in some ways to a Balzac, Zola, or Dickens project, though clothed in the garments of a police procedural.
It would be a melodramatic exaggeration to say that the Martin Beck series changed my life, but like all such exaggerations, this one would be built on a nugget of truth. Both my idea of Scandinavia and my sense of what a mystery could do were shaped by those books. If I later became a veritable addict of the form, gobbling up hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year in Kindle purchases of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian mysteries, that habit could no doubt be attributed to many things besides the Martin Becks: the invention of digital books, for instance, which allowed for impulse buying and virtually infinite storage; the massive and surprising success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, which encouraged American publishers to bring out any and every available Scandinavian thriller; the introduction of the long-cycle police procedural on American television, including such gems as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and ultimately The Wire, all of which cemented my fascination with the form; not to mention dozens if not hundreds of similar behavior-shaping factors that remain, for me, at an unconscious level. We never know for sure why we read what we read. I cannot, at the moment, even call to mind who first recommended the Martin Becks to me (though I know it was a person and not, say, a bookstore display or a newspaper review). Whoever it was, in any case, deserves my eternal gratitude.
What is so special about these ten books? Or—a slightly different question—what was it that so appealed to me back in 1981 or 1982, when I was about to turn thirty and America was on the verge of becoming what it is today?
Ronald Reagan, remember, had just been elected president. Many of us who voted against him (particularly among the Californians who had suffered through his governorship) had sworn that we would leave the country if he won. We didn’t actually carry out these threats—one never does, as I have learned repeatedly in the years since—but in my imagination I must have pictured Sweden, that haven for dissident Americans since the time of the Vietnam War, as one of the ideal refuges to which one could flee in such circumstances. That the society in which the Martin Beck novels took place represented a form of humane, non-Soviet socialism was certainly a great part of their appeal for me. What I failed to notice at the time was how severely Sjöwall and Wahlöö were in fact criticizing the inadequate socialism practiced in their country. Instead, what I saw was the difference between gun-crazy, corporate-run, murder-riddled America and this small, sensible nation where even police officers hated guns, where crime was seen as a social problem rather than an individual pathology, and where the rare appearance of a serial or mass killer instantly provoked comparisons to the well-chronicled history of such crimes in the United States.
And then there was the specific affection I felt for Martin Beck’s team of homicide detectives. The idea of a team was itself appealing, especially in contrast to the usual American detective, a hardboiled rogue who typically despised collective procedures and chose to work alone and unregulated. But beyond that, I loved the individual characters in the team, who over the course of ten volumes began to seem as familiar to me as most of my real-life acquaintances.
To begin with, there is Martin Beck himself, who exhibits rectitude, fairness, a decent sense of empathy even for murderers, a useful skepticism about the criminal justice system, a healthy dislike of stupidity, careerism, and greed, and a willingness to let those around him do their best work. His home life, perhaps, leaves something to be desired—alienated from his nagging wife and distant from his two small children, he spends as many hours as possible on the job—but this changes over the course of the ten volumes, as he and his wife divorce and as he bonds with his growing daughter. And though Martin Beck is something of a loner, with few strong emotional ties, he does have a best friend, in the form of Lennart Kollberg, his second-in-command on the national homicide squad.
Kollberg is one of the great characters of detective fiction. (He is almost always called simply “Kollberg” by the omniscient narrator of these books, just as Martin Beck is always called by his full name; it is only the other characters who address them as “Martin” or “Lennart.”) His fame, in the years since he came into being, has so transcended his original circumstances that a recent Norwegian mystery writer, Karin Fossum, can name her chief detective’s dog Kollberg and expect everyone to pick up the allusion.
It’s not easy to convey what is so lovable about Kollberg. His charm and wit, though notable, don’t lend themselves to brief quotation; they are cumulative, like everything else in the series. Nor is he particularly magnetic, at least in terms of looks. For one thing, he’s distinctly overweight, though that doesn’t prevent him from being very attractive to certain women (in particular his much appreciated and significantly younger wife, Gunnar). He doesn’t have any of the special talents some of his teammates possess—the phenomenal memory of Fredrik Melander, say, or the immense physical bravery of Gunvald Larsson, or even the sheer dogged persistence of the unimaginative Einar Rönn—but his all-round intelligence and sharp, ironic sense of humor make him an invaluable collaborator and sounding board for Martin Beck. As is often remarked in this series, the two of them can understand each other without explaining themselves, which is perhaps the essential definition of a close friendship. It is also, as Sjöwall and Wahlöö must have known, the defining element of any intimate collaboration on an important and prolonged piece of work.
In the early sixties, when Sjöwall and Wahlöö were formulating their idea for a ten-volume police procedural that would mirror the whole society, nothing of the kind had ever appeared in Scandinavian literature. America may have produced Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain by then, not to mention numerous noir detective films and even some early urban TV shows, like Dragnet, that edged toward this territory. But the Scandinavian tradition was different. There were mysteries, true, but they utterly lacked the broad social perspective, the insistence on some kind of realism, that Sjöwall and Wahlöö were about to introduce.
One of the existing strands, for example, descended from the book Jo Nesbø has described as the original Nordic thriller: a 1909 mystery called The Iron Chariot, written by Norway’s Sven Elvestad under the pen name Stein Riverton. It’s a readable enough work, though a bit slow and (especially compared to latter-day practitioners like Nesbø himself) grotesquely unsuspenseful. The Iron Chariot is basically a country-house murder mystery, set in an idyllic landscape somewhere on the southern Norwegian coast at the height of summer—a location and a season that together allow for a great deal of crepuscular light shimmering on the ocean at midnight and other effects of that sort. The mysteriously clanking and reputedly ghostly “chariot” of the title turns out to be a newfangled flying machine invented by a local professor, one of the murder victims. In the end, the murderer is revealed to be the story’s narrator, a weirdly impalpable creature whose crimes and methods are exposed by the Holmes-like detective called in from the nearest city—though not before we have pretty much figured them out by ourselves. The whole novel is like a combination of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, a narrative that is at once logical and insane, but in any case very particular and very enclosed, with an extremely limited pool of suspects and no perspective whatsoever on the society at large.
Another precedent—perhaps even further from the Martin Becks in style and intent, though closer temporally and geographically—consisted of the various Swedish mysteries written for children in the mid-twentieth century. These included Åke Holmberg’s novels about the private eye Ture Sventon, issued between 1948 and 1973, and Nils-Olof Franzén’s illustrated books about the detective Agaton Sax, which came out around the same time. Those detective characters, too, were clearly modeled on Holmes, though with certain features—such as a jolly round figure and an animal associate, in the case of Sax—that would make them especially appealing to children. The most famous series in this genre, perhaps because it actually employed a child as the detective, was Astrid Lindgren’s trio of mysteries featuring a schoolboy named Kalle Blomqvist (a central character who, when the books proved popular enough to export, was later renamed Bill Bergson). These three tales, which appeared in Sweden between 1946 and 1953, are somewhat reminiscent of America’s Nancy Drew series, with a youthful amateur detective who, together with the necessary age-appropriate sidekicks, always succeeds in outwitting the bad guys. Even now, the books remain sufficiently well known in Sweden so that present-day readers of the Stieg Larsson books are expected to get the joke when Lisbeth’s ally, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is nicknamed “Kalle” by his friends. (This would seem to be a joke that never stales among Swedish mystery writers, for Leif G. W. Persson brings it up again in his recent novel The Dying Detective.)
But the Larsson and Persson books did not exist until decades after the Martin Becks were first published. It took a particular pair of authors working together at a specific moment in history to create that now-dominant form, the modern-day Scandinavian mystery. And despite the fact that they were naive beginners, or perhaps in some ways because of that, their achievement in the form has never been topped.
Let’s agree to dispense with any discussion about brow levels. If I happen to invoke Dickens, Balzac, or Dostoyevsky when talking about these books, it is not to insist that Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall are their equals as the writers of sentences and paragraphs—though nor would I want to grant outright that they are not at the same level in some other way. After all, Wilkie Collins was a thriller writer of the late nineteenth century whose best novels we are still reading with enormous satisfaction today; with each passing decade, he comes to seem more and more of a Victorian classic. One could also argue that Eric Ambler is as much a twentieth-century stylist as Ernest Hemingway, along the same spare lines, and it is not yet clear, if you ask me, which we’ll be reading longer. My point is not just that we can’t, from our limited perspective, answer questions about longevity and importance. It’s also that I don’t particularly want to.
What matters to me is how persuasively these mystery writers manage to create a world that one can imaginatively inhabit—for the duration of a first reading, initially, but also long after. The various features of Martin Beck’s world, including his Stockholm streets, his police department colleagues, his lovers, his friends, the crimes he solves, the murderers he pities, the politicians and bureaucrats he deplores, even the apartments he inhabits, all seemed terribly real to me when I first encountered them, and all continue to seem so today, even after one or more rereadings. This is the mystery novel not as a puzzle that can be forgotten as soon as it is solved but as an experience one is living through along with the characters. If they are sometimes “flat” characters in the manner of Dickens’s grotesques or Shakespeare’s clowns, that is not an absence of realism, but rather a realistic acknowledgment that in our own lives most other people remain opaque to us, often memorable mainly through their caricature-able qualities. We do not have the capacity, as George Eliot famously noted, to be fully empathetic at all times. Much of our observant life, and even much of our own experience, is conducted in a kind of shorthand.
Yet part of what makes the Sjöwall/Wahlöö books great, in comparison to most other mystery series, is precisely the opposite of this shorthand. They are oddly inclusive, with an eye for extraneous detail and a concern with the kinds of trivialities (subways ridden, meals eaten, suspicions vaguely aroused, meandering conversations, useless trains of thought, sudden bursts of intuition, random acts or events that cause everything to change suddenly) that make up not only every life, but every prolonged police investigation. This means that the timing of the books is, for some readers, excessively slow: we often have to wait for the necessary facts to surface, so we tend to find ourselves floating along rather than racing toward an increasingly visible conclusion. I always tell people that they have to wade through at least the first two volumes, Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, before things really get going in the Martin Beck series. Only when they reach The Man on the Balcony or, even better, The Laughing Policeman will they be able to judge how much they like the series. Patience is required of the reader, just as it is of the detective.
Nor are these the sort of “fair” mystery that lays out all the potential suspects and relevant clues (if perhaps in cleverly disguised form) early enough for you to arrive at the solution yourself. Leave that to Agatha Christie and the other puzzle-mongers. In the Martin Beck novels, the murderer might be someone we meet on the first page, but he equally well might not appear until nearly the end of the volume. The solution is only part of the point; it is getting there that matters.
Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review. She has written one novel and eleven previous works of nonfiction; recent books include Music for Silenced Voices, Why I Read, and You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, which won the Marfield Prize for Arts Writing and the PEN America Award for Research Nonfiction. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Swedish Academy, and numerous other organizations, she currently divides her time between Berkeley, California, and New York City.
Excerpted from Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery, by Wendy Lesser. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Wendy Lesser. All rights reserved.