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.
  • 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.

Review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: British espionage thriller meets Swedish crime

I never thought I’d say this, but I was glad of some Welsh rain this afternoon, as it gave me and Mr. Peabody the perfect opportunity to go to the cinema. There, we treated ourselves to the 1970s espionage fest that is Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from the John le Carré classic of 1974.

The film has received rave reviews, including a rare 5 stars from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, and I can understand why: this is film-making of the highest quality, which is beautifully acted and styled, and recreates a tense Cold War atmosphere to perfection.

Although the plot is fiendishly complex in places, with some mind-boggling twists and turns, the fundamentals of the story are always clear. There is a Soviet mole in the highest echelons of the British Secret Service, working for ‘Karla’, the enigmatic head of the KGB. It falls to George Smiley, a forcibly ‘retired’ senior intelligence officer, to flush the mole out. The spy has to be one of four people, all of whom Smiley has worked with for years, and so he is dealing not just with a political betrayal, but with a long-running personal betrayal as well.

The film allows Smiley’s investigation to unfold at a leisurely pace, as he tracks down the key players whose recollections will allow him to identify the mole. We are also shown Smiley’s own memories of past events (including a Christmas office party with Le Carré as an extra), which he is forced to view with new eyes – a painful process that reveals how one person’s betrayal has undermined all their supposed achievements down the years. Seeing things clearly is a dominant theme: early in the film, Smiley visits an optician’s and emerges with a new pair of glasses – the big, rectangular type worn by Alec Guinness’s Smiley in the 1970s TV adaptation. But this is much more than simple homage to the famous earlier series: the new glasses have a deeply symbolic function, showing how Smiley has sharpened his vision, in order to see the truth properly for the first time.

The acting is excellent throughout. Gary Oldman is a wonderfully controlled Smiley, whose close-ups reveal, through the minutest of facial movements, the tensions that lie beneath. There are also wonderful performances by John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Kathy Burke (who has possibly the best line of the whole film). Hats off, as well, to the film’s cinematographers, stylists, and lighting crew, who evoke a gloomy 70s Britain so perfectly: there’s no James Bond glitz or glamour here, just a succession of dark, windowless secret-service offices and hideouts, in a 1970s palette made up almost exclusively of browns (from beige to fawn to mud and a thousand shades in-between). The humdrum office life of the secret service is beautifully depicted (Trebor Mint, anyone?) and in some ways the whole story can be read as just mundane office-room politics, with various divisional heads pitted against one another for supremacy over the years … albeit with more geo-political issues and human lives at stake than your average workplace.

So how does a review of this seemingly ultra-British film end up on a transnational crime blog? Well, the film was co-funded by France’s StudioCanal, and the director, Tomas Alfredson, is Swedish. Best known for his 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In, Alfredson has done a tremendous job of adapting le Carré’s depiction of the classic Cold War crimes of treachery and betrayal. And in its understated style and underlying melancholia, I see this film connecting back to Swedish crime writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Henning Mankell, whose investigative figures, like Smiley, plod their way in a dogged and melancholy fashion towards the truth.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the quintessential British espionage thriller meets the best of Swedish crime writing. It’s a winning combination and I can only hope that the other two novels in the Karla Trilogy will make it to the big screen via the same film-making team.

There’s also a lovely A-Z of TTSS from The Guardian available here.

‘Can Scandinavian crime fiction teach socialism?’

There’s a very nice article by Deborah Orr in today’s The Guardian, which explores Scandinavian crime fiction’s role in ‘framing socio-political debate’. She takes in The Killing (‘are political coalitions healthy?’), the ‘Martin Beck’ series (Marxist critique of 1960s Swedish society), Nesbo’s works (‘sexual crime as expression of discord between men and women’) as well as a couple of others in the course of her discussion. Well worth a read.

For the Lund watchers amongst you, the article also features a picture of Lund wearing a third jumper – white diamonds on black!