Talking about The Terrorists, by Sjowall and Wahloo: Everything a book discussion should be – and more

September 16, 2012 at 2:16 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I’m not quite sure how to begin this post. Tuesday night’s Usual Suspects book discussion was so rich and stimulating:

  When it’s Frances’s turn to lead the group, we always know we’re going to be treated to an extraordinary degree of preparation. Even so, she may have outdone herself as she led our discussion of The Terrorists, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

From an amazingly thick binder, Frances extracted page after page of fact sheets and images. The latter were especially poignant; we got to see these two writers when they were still relatively young, just starting out in their lives both as crime fiction authors and as lovers.

I for one had not realized the complexity of their lives in the period before their time together. Maj Sjowall had been married twice and had a daughter; Per Wahloo was married at the time of their meeting.  They met while working for the same magazine publisher. He wooed her with passages of writing in which he invited her to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Obviously she did that – and more.

Frances’s central question to us was: Who exactly were the eponymous terrorists in this novel? She helped bring us to the realization of the importance of this consideration. Meanwhile, many of us praised  the sheer cunning of the plot hatched by the police in order to foil the would-be assassins. The Terrorists, the final novel in the Martin Beck series, was published in 1975. It was interesting to note that in today’s world of instant communications, where it’s so difficult to keep a secret, that plot would almost certainly not have worked.

The amazingly effective efforts by the police in this case made it all the more puzzling  – to this reader, at least – that  the writers allude almost casually to the routine corruption in the force, as in this passage concerning Martin Beck’s new and very desirable living space:

He had been in luck when he found the place, and the most extraordinary thing was that he didn’t get it  through cheating or bribery and corruption–in other words, the way police generally acquired privileges.

It’s a well known fact about these novels that Sjowall and Wahloo used them as a vehicle for criticizing the social and political conditions prevailing in Sweden in particular, and the Western world in general, at the time of their writing. Marge commented that these critical comments, some of them very forthright and blunt, were her least favorite aspect of the novel. As she succinctly put it: ‘It stops the plot.’ I agree with her. As an instance of that, the above passage leaped out in a jarring way, interrupting the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative.

But this is a minor cavil: over all, the pacing is swift, the story is involving and suspenseful. The characters are exceptionally engaging. This is especially true of  what Frances termed the ‘team of five,’ a group of exceptionally skilled and resourceful law men headed up by Martin Beck. I can do no better in describing this protagonist than Dennis Lehane, in his introduction to  the 2010 Vintage Crime /Black Lizard edition of this novel:

As this novel…is Martin Beck’s swan song, it’s worth noting that in the annals of realistic fictional policemen, Beck stands a full head above most. He carries plenty of psychic scars and admits to a depressive personality, but he’s not gloom laden to the point of masochistic self-pity that so often masquerades as a hard-boiled hero’s tragic worldview. Beck is a dogged worker bee entering his later middle-aged years with a healthy romantic life and no illusions about his place in the larger scheme of things.

That last sentence, at least, could equally apply to two other favorite fictional policemen of mine: Commissario Guido Brunetti and Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford,  recently retired. Brunetti and Wexford are both uxorious, dependent on their respective wives for affection, moral support, and insight. Both men are comfortably – and comfortingly – ensconced in marriages of long standing. Beck, on the other hand, manages in the course of the series to extricate himself from a stale and joyless union. In The Locked Room, the eighth book, he meets Rhea Nielsen, who works for the social welfare services and also owns and manages an apartment building. There’s an instantaneous attraction, and by the time the events of the tenth and last book are unfolding, Beck and Rhea are in a relationship that’s richly rewarding for both of them.

(I admit I was somewhat startled by the physical description of Rhea. Here’s her first appearance in The Terrorists, during a courtroom scene:

She was of below average height and had dead-straight blond hair, not especially long. Her clothes consisted of faded jeans, a shirt of indefinite color and strap sandals. She had broad, sunburnt feet with straight toes, flat breasts with large nipples that could be seen quite clearly through her shirt. The most remarkable thing about her was her small, angular face with its strong nose and piercing blue gaze, which she directed in turn on those present.

In the course of the novel, those nipples receive multiple mention, as do her feet.)

At any rate, the trajectory of Martin Beck’s love life would seem to have some parallels in the lives of the authors. (It also reminds me of events in the life of one of my other favorite fictional policemen, Bill Slider.) In a 2009 article in the Guardian/Observer,  Sjowall admits that at the time that she and Per Wahloo began their love affair, “His wife hated me, of course.”  She adds that they are now friends. (This is yet another instance of the fact that if you live long enough, the nature of some of your relationships may change profoundly.)

Frances asked us how we felt about The Terrorists being the conclusion of the series. Apparently this was the plan from the very beginning, ten years earlier, starting with Roseanna in 1965.   I believe we agreed that this novel did not have that autumnal quality that one associates with such endings. Moreover, as a series winds down, it’s usual for its creator to have the protagonist retire, become in some way incapacitated,  or even die. (Who can forget the loss of  Inspector Morse, masterfully played by John Thaw, in The Remorseful Day? I read the novel, but I’ve never been able to watch the TV episode. Of course, one’s sadness was made more acute when John Thaw himself passed away a short time later.)

I don’t mean to be dismissive about the social and political concerns of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. According to my understanding, these were the prime motivation behind the writing if these novels. Again, Dennis Lehane:

One wonders how Sjowall and Wahloo managed to live there through the writing of the ten Martin Beck novels, , so negative is their depiction of not just the failed welfare state but the physical landscape as well, a shameless myth of blond goddesses and mineral springs that in reality gives birth every morning to a ‘dismal, dirty, gray and depressing dawn.’ It’s a late November world, compressed by a dark, swollen sky that hovers roughly four inches above your head until May. The courts don’t work, the schools produce little but rot, and the ruling class skims the cream off the top and turns its back as the poor fight over the coffee grounds.

Well. I don’t know about you, but this harsh appraisal does not at all accord with my mental picture of the workings of Sweden’s social democracy. But it was their country; they should know. When you add to this the fact that Sjowall and Wahloo began their collaboration at the height of the war in Vietnam their animus against Western governments in general becomes more understandable. And of course, much of that animus was directed against the United States. It’s the visit to Sweden of an American senator, with the concomitant need for extraordinary security measures, that precipitates the crisis in The Terrorists.

Per Wahloo is on record as stating that their goal in the Martin Beck novels was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.” Well, golly, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But these books are fun, in the sense that a terrific story well told invariably is. I like the way the case is stated at Scandinavian Books:

 How well they succeeded as far as the social criticism of the Swedish welfare state is concerned, is open to debate. However, what they did succeed in, was the creation of one of the most interesting and wonderful series of crime fiction novels ever. While each of the books may be read individually as a stand alone crime novel, this well designed series contains a rich, intriguing and fascinating set of side stories about the main character Martin Beck and his family, the dynamics of the group of detectives working with him, and the intrigues and struggles within the police force. Martin Beck and his colleagues at the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm are the main characters of the series.

This photograph of the authors, the one most commonly reproduced, is one I’ve featured in other posts on Books to the Ceiling:    This was taken when Per Wahloo was already gravely ill, something I’d not previously known. (He died at the age of 48; Maj Sjowall was some eight or nine years his junior.):  . Here are two photos of an earlier vintage:   .  I especially like this one, with the two sons they had together: . (The couple lived together but were never married.)

Frances did some research on the translators of the Beck novels. Translators tend to be the unsung heroes of international literature, yet there efforts are so crucial. The translator of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition of The Terrorists is Joan Tate, who turns out to be an extremely interesting and accomplished person in her own right.

All ten of the Martin Beck novels, taken together, are called The Story of a Crime . This image comes from a site called Zoom Street, where an ‘August Beck Fest’ was recently commended to crime fiction fans. Writer Derek Pell calls the books “highly addictive.” There’s no shortage of similar praise everywhere I’ve looked. And as for the new, most gratifyingly excellent wave of Scandinavian crime fiction authors currently on the literary scene, they’re all well aware that  they stand on the shoulders of these two giants.

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In 2010, Sweden issued a number of postage stamps featuring distinguished authors of crime fiction. This one honors Sjowall and Wahloo: 

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The Laughing Policeman made the list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century compiled by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

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I began by trying to take notes Tuesday night, but I soon gave up. Ideas, questions, and observations – all were flowing back and forth fast and furiously. Frances had such a wealth of material to share – I wished the meeting were being recorded.  I don’t feel that I’ve quite conveyed the feeling of exhilaration that blossomed in Frances’s cozy and charming living room. I know I’ve left out a great deal of what passed. Suspects – feel free to offer additions and/or corrections. (For much of the time, Toby the genial Black Lab was chewing with noisy gusto on his bone, adding to everyone’s general delight in the occasion!)

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There is something strangely compelling in the story of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: their passionate lives as both lovers and artistic collaborators; their carefully planned ten volume fictional series concluding at the same time that Wahloo’s own life was concluding. It was a richly rewarding partnership on several levels, cut short by a cruel and unforgiving fate. I can’t help thinking: If I’d been Maj Sjowall in 1975, I’ d have felt as though my entire world were imploding. And yet – look what they achieved – look what they had!

Maj Sjowall in 2005

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2 Comments

  1. Susan said,

    What a fabulous post you’ve written. I really enjoyed reading it. I am working my way through the series – I tried The laughing Policeman last year through our library, and liked it so much that I’ve gone back to the beginning and am starting to read it through in order. I enjoy this series very much. I quite like Martin Beck’s doggedness, and his refusal to give up. I do think it is a very good mystery series, and I’m anxious to see how it unfolds.

    I didn’t know much about Wahloo and Sjowall’s private life, so this was also interesting for me. They were interesting people in themselves, as well as being such good writers together. Thanks so much for sharing your book club meeting on this.

  2. kathy d. said,

    Very good post here about Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They were social critics, socialists, who were putting their own observations about the Swedish state into their very fine mysteries. Their 10-book series is regarded as one of the finest anywhere. Many readers and reviewers regard them as the “parents” of Swedish crime fiction.
    Their books could and should be used in college courses in “How to write a mystery,” as they’re exemplary. They also demonstrate that a good mystery needn’t be 500 pages long; the story can be told in 200 pages or so with all of the necessary information, plot development and denouement.
    The social observations don’t bother me. I agree with them and also I learn a lot from global crime fiction and I appreciate the writers taking the time to bring in the political and social issues of their countries, so I feel enlightened as well as entertained.

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