CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child

I’m just back from this year’s CrimeFest, which was particularly special for a number of reasons. This is the first of two posts on the event, and focuses on Lee Child’s interview with the legendary Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall.

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Maj Sjöwall and Lee Child at CrimeFest, Saturday 16 May (with thanks to the unknown photographer!)

Sjöwall, co-author of the highly influential ‘Martin Beck’ series with her husband Per Wahlöö, was the festival’s guest of honour. The almost mythical position she holds as the ‘godmother of Scandinavian crime’ was illustrated by the standing ovation she received on entering the room with Lee Child. What we heard from her in the course of the conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating:

  • The ‘Martin Beck’ series (1965-75) grew out of national and international events: 1960s Sweden was turning from a social democratic country to a more right-wing country, and it was the era of the Vietnam War and student demos. The series was designed to show what was happening to Swedish society and how the police was becoming more militarised, but in bumbling way, like a small-town police force.
  • They choose the crime genre as a vehicle because it was entertaining and would reach a wide audience. She and Per sat face to face over a table and worked together, talking extensively about the stories and the language they would use. The aim was to make the novels as accessible as possible.
  • In the case of Roseanne, the first novel, they’d been on a boat trip and seen a beautiful American woman travelling on her own. As Per was looking at her just a bit too closely, Maj decided, ‘we’ll kill her!’ (just one example of her splendidly wry humour).
  • Crime fiction wasn’t a big thing in Sweden at that time (just a few ‘bourgeois amateur sleuths’). There were no police procedurals. They wanted the novels to be realistic, so they kept the pace of the narrative slow and a created a police team rather than focusing on just one hero.

The first novel in the series (1965)

  • Their influences were Chandler, Hammett and Simenon. The American 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain were NOT a direct influence as is often thought. They only read these after they started writing the series. (Given the similarities between the two, one can only say that this was a remarkable case of synchronicity!)
  • The series took off around book three or four. But it tended to be read by young left-wingers who were already converted to the [Marxist] ideals and values it promoted. So as authors, they were not necessarily reaching the audience they wanted to influence.
  • Of police investigator Martin Beck: he is a ‘quite boring’, classic civil servant, ‘but has a very important quality – empathy’. He reflects the masculine police world of the time and is depicted realistically: he’s married to the job and has a complex relation-ship with his wife and children. The authors were criticised for this: it was felt that police in crime novels should not have a private life. Now it’s a big part of modern crime (Child added that it’s ‘almost a requirement’).
  • They decided on ten novels from the start, and thought of the series as one long novel that was split into ten (influenced by Balzac).

The ten novels in the series also match the number of letters in Martin Beck’s name.

  • Was the series successful in critiquing/changing Sweden? Maj responds by saying that she doesn’t think books can change the world, but that they can influence and help to change the ways that people think.
  • The novels were first translated into French and German, then later into English. Maj thinks they paved the way for other crime writers in those countries. [She’s certainly right in relation to West Germany, where the Beck series had a significant influence on the Soziokrimi (social crime novel) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Intriguingly, the series was also published in East Germany, which approved of the series’ political viewpoint].
  • Child sees the influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in Ian Rankin’s Rebus and other crime writing far beyond Scandi borders. In a brief Twitter conversation, Rankin told me: ‘Actually, I’m pretty sure I’d written a few Rebus novels before reading the Becks. On the other hand… it is feasible I’d been reading *about* the Becks and the notion of a real-time series may have chimed’.
  • Maj does not have explanation for why series is so popular. She likes the recent work of Leif G. W. Persson because he stays close to reality. But in her view too many contemporary crime novels are set in small towns and focus on personal narratives.
  • One of Maj’s favourite Beck novels is The Locked Room, due to its structure and logic, and the memories she has of writing it.

The Sjöwall interview was sponsored by British Institute for Literary Translation, which is very fitting: we would never have been able to read the Beck series without the services of marvellous translators like Lois Roth, Joan Tate, Alan Blair, Thomas Teal and Paul Britten Austin. Huge thanks to them! Here’s a list of the ‘Martin Beck’ novels and a few interesting links:

  • 1965 – Roseanna (Roseanna)
  • 1966 – Mannen som gick upp i rök (The Man who Went Up in Smoke)
  • 1967 – Mannen på balkongen (The Man on the Balcony)
  • 1968 – Den skrattande polisen (The Laughing Policeman)
  • 1969 – Brandbilen som försvann (The Fire Engine That Disappeared)
  • 1970 – Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy)
  • 1971 – Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle (The Abominable Man)
  • 1972 – Det slutna rummet (The Locked Room)
  • 1974 – Polismördaren (Cop Killer)
  • 1975 – Terroristerna (The Terrorists)
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A wonderful memento from a wonderful event

Coming up in the next CrimeFest post: The 2015 Petrona Award, Euro Noir and other international delights.

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22 thoughts on “CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child

    • Thanks, Margot. It was a very special event. Atmosphere a mixture of awe and buzz that she was really there. Wish you could have been too.

  1. Great interview, was nice that she rates Leif Persson. ‘The Locked Room’ has always been one of my favourite books, had me laughing out load when I first read it, the ‘Raid’ is still hilarious!
    Will definitely read the links.
    Cop Killer & the locked room are the only hard backs I have, both are 1974 editions, so 41 years ago I first started this series, & it still one of the best!

    • Thanks, Brian. Yes, I think it’s very fitting that she likes Persson, because his novels owe a huge debt to the Martin Beck series (they are also titled The Story of a Crime, and surely Backstrom is a descendant of the bumbling policemen created by S/W). But Persson’s novels also take that influence and create something new with it. Must re-read The Locked Room now.

      VERY jealous of your 1974 editions.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Mrs P. I was sitting near the back and didn’t quite hear everything. I was hoping someone would be reporting and this is a great summary. So special. I re-read all the Martin Becks recently and enjoyed them so much.

    • You’re welcome, Christine. I like getting the report down as soon as possible; it’s a nice thing to come back to at a later date as well. I’m now seriously considering copying you and re-reading the whole series. Not quite sure how I’m going to squeeze that in, but it can be a nice summer project.

      Very good to see you at CrimeFest!

  3. I enjoyed reading this so thanks. I read the first book and enjoyed it! Bought the rest of the books in the Martin Beck series. I think I’ll read The Locked Room next. Must give Leif Persson another look. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome, Keishon. I hope you enjoy the Beck series and Persson’s novels. They’re very much aligned in their approaches, but the big difference is the length of the books!

  4. Thanks a lot! Another set of books to add to the stack currently on my bedside table. Too many…about to topple! Moving to sitting room….there’s always the coffee table. Lots of room there…many grins.

    • I know, I know. It’s just a never ending stream, isn’t it? I have books stacking up on the floor next to my bookshelves at the moment. It’s like a bookish Day of the Triffids! But here’s to lots of happy reading for us both.

  5. I agree how wonderful to meet an author, hear their voice and be charmed again. Even reading about the interview is interesting and makes me want to read the books again…it must be amazing to have memories of having seen and heard her for real (and an autograph)

    • I have to confess that it was a bit of a fangirl moment, Quimper Hitty. The Martin Beck series is amongst my very favourites and its influence is quite extraordinary. The queue for the signing included a high proportion of well-known authors paying homage!

  6. This is like meeting royalty indeed – one of my absolute favourite series, with such lasting and profound effects on many, many crime writers. I would have been fangirling and emoting like mad as well!

  7. How lucky you all were to have heard Maj Sjowall, a leading force in crime fiction.
    This is a terrific write-up which I enjoyed reading.
    I have read most of the Beck series and must finish it. I also laughed out loud
    while reading The Locked Room, which is a doozy of a book with a very intricate
    solution. It must have taken both writers quite a while — and a lot of fun — figuring it out.
    I agree with their political viewpoint and am glad so many people have read their books.
    Crime fiction may not change the world, but if it has political and social depth, it will
    make people think.
    I’m also wondering if anyone from the Petrona Award panel can explain why
    the winning book was chosen above the others. I always look for these explanations.

    • Hello, Kathy. It’s a week on, and I still feel very lucky to have had the chance to hear Maj Sjowall in person. It was a great event.

      In terms of explaining why we choose The Silence of the Sea, I can only say that there was plenty of discussion about the merits of each of the wonderful books on the shortlist, and that TSotS eventually emerged as the winner 🙂

  8. Pingback: CrimeFest 2015: The Petrona, CWA International Dagger and EuroNoir | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  9. Yes, but what were the merits of The Silence of the Sea specifically? Plot, characters, setting, mystery, suspense, solution, brilliance of locked-room method???

    • Kathy, as just one of the judges, I can’t go into detail about the deliberations. But your question makes me think it would have been good to have a post-prize statement on the winning novel and the reasons why we chose it. Will pass this along to the others for consideration…

  10. No one is asking for private comments, but it’s good to know why one book stood head and shoulders above the others. This is especially interesting since some dedicated crime fiction reader-bloggers chose other books.
    For me these opinions determine whether or not I buy a book as my library does not spend much on global fiction, crime-related or not. So, I have to juggle viewpoints.
    I checked the CWA awards site and found an explanation by the judges of why they picked a certain book in 2014. It wasn’t revealing any private deliberations, but rather a general statement with one sentence on their decision.

    • I totally understand, Kathy. I’ll suggest that we provide a post-award statement about the Petrona winner next year. It’s a really good idea.

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