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MAJ SJOWALL and PER WAHLOO: An Appreciation

When you read this post of Past Masters and Mistresses, you’re getting two for the price of one.

Long before Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell arrived on the Scandinavian literary scene, there were Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a couple from Sweden who decided to write ten books of thirty chapters each to document what they saw as the disintegration of Swedish society.

I discovered their novels, which feature Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck, probably in the late 1960s, shortly after an English translation of their first book, Roseanna, was published.  I was beginning to look for new authors, having devoured the oeuvres (aren’t you impressed?) of Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dorothy L. Sayers.  I suppose I was interested in something different, something not American or British, but I’m not sure how I came upon Sjowall and Wahloo’s first mystery.  Just a lucky thing for me.

I was captured from the beginning, although this detective Beck was certainly not your usual protagonist at that time.  He was always depressed and dour, it seemed to me, with an increasingly unhappy home life, as each succeeding book in the series made clear.  But he was also dedicated and caring, obsessive in his work ethic, and never gave up. Over the years, I read each novel as it became available in the States.

There’s a wonderful interview with Maj Sjowall at The Guardian/The Observer web site.  I hadn’t known anything about Ms. Sjowall or her late partner (Per Wahloo died over forty years ago, just as the last novel in the series was published).  If you’re unfamiliar with their work, this interview will definitely make you want to get a copy of Roseanna and then read the nine novels that follow.  If you’ve read the books already, but it was back in the day, do yourself a favor and read them again.  They’re well worth the trip back in time to a Sweden just beginning to realize the enormous changes that were coming to its society.

Ms. Sjowall is currently living in Sweden.  I’ve stretched my definition of Past Masters and Mistresses a bit, as the Master in this Appreciation is deceased but the Mistress happily is not.  However, given that Ms. Sjowall is no longer writing any Martin Beck mysteries, I decided that this remarkable couple deserves an Appreciation.  I hope you’ll give their books a try.

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