Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: Top Crime Ficion Series
Maj Sjöwall was born in 1935. She is a writer and journalist in Sweden. Per Wahlöö was born in Göteborg in 1926. After finishing his studies in 1946 he worked as a journalist. Per Wahlöö died in Stockholm on June 23, 1975.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, both journalists and both politically radical, met in 1961 while working for magazines published by the same company. They married the next year and the carefully planned crime series (essentially police procedurals), 10 books in 10 years, was written in the evenings, after their children had been put to bed. The series is called "The Story of a Crime".
According to Wahlöö, their intention was to "use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type." 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.
In our opinion, this is one of the top five series of crime fiction books ever written (but see also Stieg Larsson). Some firmly place it in the number one spot. Sjowall and Wahloo also won the Edgar Allan Poe award for best crime fiction book in 1971. The stories are great, it works as a series, it is excellently written, the plots are rich and well executed, and the books are both interesting, engaging, and funny as well. Great reads. How much more do you want?
Also, we should mention that due to the relatively important role played by the side stories (Beck's family, the characters of the detectives, and so on), it is highly recommended that you read these books in the sequence in which they were published. The books will simply bring more joy if you do it this way.
Please note that some of the books are not available from amazon.com. The pictures of the books point to (are links to) amazon US. However, all of them can be found at amazon.co.uk, and seem (currently) to be available.
A young woman is found dead in a canal, molested and murdered. The case is almost instantly cold, as nobody can identify her and it is not clear where and by whom she was killed. The mystery grows when a search indicates that no-one is missing in the area, and no matches to the description of the woman can be found in the records. This just does not happen in the well-regulated, transparent social democratic kingdom of Sweden. What is going on? Eventually, the victim is identified as Roseanna McGraw, a tourist who took a boat trip through the region when she was murdered. A painstakingly meticulous investigation follows to determine who were with her in the boat.
Roseanna is also the book where the team of principal investigators, consisting of Martin Beck, Lennart Kollberg, and Frederik Melander, is introduced.
Roseanna is a great book, and a wonderful introduction to this series!
Order Roseanna (The Martin Beck) from Amazon UK!
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)
A journalist - Alf Matsson - is reported missing by his employer. He was sent to Prague to write an article from behind the Iron Curtain, Martin Beck is sent to Prague to find him or find out what has happened. But in Prague the mystery deepens. There are no traces of the missing reporter. And why is Martin Beck being shadowed? The police department of Prague denies involvement. So who is doing it?
And why put a tail on him if there is nothing to hide? The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is a book with mysteries within mysteries, and with interesting turns in the plot.
The Man on the Balcony (1967)
The Stockholm public parks have become the scene of a series of violent robbings when a small girl is found sexually abused and then killed. Parents all over Stockholm get more and more scared for the well being of their kids, and Martin Beck is placed in charge of the case.
Beck and his team start to chase the robber; although it is unlikely that he is also responsible for the pedosexual attacks, he is at least a material witness for what later turns out to be only the first of a series of murders.
In The Man on the Balcony the boorish detective Gunvald Larsson is introduced, as is Einar Rönn, who comes from a rural part of the country and likes his life quiet. Larsson was Sjöwall's favourite character, whereas Rönn was Wahlöö's. Also, two regular street cops are introduced, Kristiansson and Kvant, who will provide some of the comic relief throughout the rest of the series.
This book is based upon a true story. In the early 1960's a couple of small girls were killed in Stockholm by someone who raped them and kept their panties.
The Laughing Policeman (1968)
While the police are off fighting peaceful Vietnam demonstrators and feeling up the fourteen-year old girls they arrest, a bus full of passengers is mowed down in another part of Stockholm, presumably by a madman with a machine gun.
In the red double-decker bus number 47 lies Åke Stenström, one of Martin Becks younger collegues. He is dead. So are the woman besides him and the driver and all the other passengers. In his right hand Stenström holds his gun. Who is this madman? What does he want?
Realizing that Stenstrom's presence on the bus was no mere coincidence, his compatriots retrace his steps and chase years-old clues to a crime long thought unsolvable. The Laughing Policeman is one of the best in the series! It also won the Edgar Award for best crime novel in 1971.
Buy The Laughing Policeman (The Martin Beck) from Amazon UK!
The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969)
Larsson and a street cop are on a stake-out when the house they are watching turns into a blaze of flames. While Larsson tries to rescue the survivors, the other cop runs to a phone booth to call in the fire brigade.
As Melander finds out through painstaking research, one of the inhabitants had committed suicide by closing off all holes in his room, and then filling it with gas. But even when the case is closed, there are a few doubts nagging at the backs of the heads of Beck and Larsson. What caused the gas to explode? Where did the fire engine go that was originally called in?
All attention is focussed on finding a possible suspect. Then the suspect is found dead in a car. Further investigation shows that the man was already dead when the house was blown up. The Fire Engine that Disappeared is a top police procedural.
Murder at the Savoy (1970)
The Swedish title of the book, meaning "Police, police, mashed potatoes", is explained in a scene where Gunvald Larsson is telling off the miserably lazy policemen Kristansson and Kvant. The two policemen had, instead of obeying their orders to arrest a suspect at Arlanda Airport, been arguing with a man who's 3-year-old son who had shouted "Police, police, mashed potatoes" at the two policemen while they were eating hot dogs with mashed potatoes at a grill bar. Regardless of title, Murder at the Savoy is a great book.
During a dinner in an expensive hotel in Malmö, a man is shot the moment he is about to give a speech. Martin Beck and his collegues discover that the man, a leading industialist, did not perform all his transactions legally. But who killed him?
The Abominable Man (1971)
On a quiet night high-ranked, decorated police officer Nyland is literally slaughtered in his hospital bed. He is run through with a bayonet. It is not hard to find people with a motive to kill him, as Nyland was an extremely hated man: he has a history of brutality towards those in custody. Rather the problem is to narrow down the list of suspects.
Martin Beck and his partner Lennard Kollberg are on the case, which starts as routine work. But slowly, it starts to raise dust in the Stockholm police. And soon, even Beck's own life may be at risk. Is he willing to risk his own life for the truth? The plot in this book is fast paced, and the actionunfolds over a much quicker period of time than many previous novels in the series, barely 24 hours. The Abdominable Man is exciting, well written, very interesting, fact in its pace, and overall a great book!
The Locked Room (1972)
The Locked Room has two plots running simultaneously. Larsson and Kollberg are extremely reluctantly part of a special task force that needs to solve a spree of bank robberies.
At the same time Martin Beck is given a pity job after recovering from being shot at the conclusion of The Abominable Man; he needs to solve a classic situation of the genre: the locked room mystery. In a room in Stockholm a man’s body is found. He has been laying there for more than 3 months. The curtains are closed and the door locked from the inside. The man is shot but no gun found in the room.
The incompetence of the Swedish police force has spread to the point that all three detectives are severely hindered in their work. Although Larsson and Kollberg manage to solve their case, the many distractions take so much time that by that time the robber has fled the country. One criminal walks free for a heinous crime he did commit, then gets to do hard time for a crime he did not commit. The Locked Room provides interesting challenges to Martin Beck.
Cop Killer (1973)
A woman is being killed on a fairground in a little village. Martin Beck is called in to investigate the crime. When Martin Beck arrives the citizens of the village has already decided who did it. But Martin Beck is not so sure, since he knows the man. Meanwhile, a couple of youth criminals kills a policeman when they're stopped while driving a stolen car. While Martin Beck investigates the murder of the woman, Gunvald Larsson takes command of the hunt for cop killers.
The Terrorists (1975)
The main plot of The Terrorists involves Martin Beck leading a team of policemen to prevent a presumed terrorist attack on a highly unpopular American senator who is paying an official visit to Sweden.
However, this is the time of the Vietnam war, and Sweden is full of anti-American demonstrations because of the American involvement in Vietnam. Anti-American sentiments are strong. How can the senator best be protected?
While Gunvald Larsson is sent to Latin-America to learn about protection, a politician is killed right in front of him. There are signals that the same terrorists are also planning to attack the American guest in Sweden.
The Terrorists was published after Wahlöö's death.