Thursday, December 04, 2008

Look Beck in Anger

Being a book collector, I always keep an eye out for new editions of classic works that I can add to my library. So I was very pleased to see that, when Orion UK released its Crime Masterworks series, No. 9 on the list was the fourth book in the Martin Beck series, The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Those married Swedish novelists made up one of the greatest writing duos in crime-fiction history, and if you’ve never read their work … well, it’s high time you did so.

Their influence is clear in Stieg Larsson’s work as well as that of many other modern novelists. In fact, Lee Child mentioned their impact on his own prose-writing during one of his panel discussions at Bouchercon in Baltimore a couple of months back. So I was not surprised to see Child’s name mentioned in a piece from The Boston Phoenix about that famous Swedish writing pair. As reporter William Corbett explains:
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck mysteries are back in a fourth American printing. The first two--Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up in Smoke--are out now, and the next two will appear in the spring. There are 10 novels in all, making up what the poet wife and the journalist husband titled “The Story of Crime.” The series first appeared in the years 1965-1975 (Wahlöö died in 1975), a period of intensifying violence among Sweden’s criminals--violence subtly linked by Sjöwall and Wahlöö to America’s war on Vietnam. Not a great leap, since many Americans who refused the draft settled in Sweden, and Swedes actively protested the war.

The Martin Beck novels are exceptional fiction and will especially please readers of Henning Mankell (he contributes an introduction to
Roseanna), whose own series of 10 Kurt Wallander novels is now complete. Mankell, Michael Ondaatje, and Michael Connelly agree that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote, in Ondaatje’s phrase, “the first great series of police thrillers.”

In the genre, the Martin Beck novels are “police procedurals,” which is not a form of crime fiction at which American writers excel. We love the shamus, the private eye, the knight or lone wolf, the one good man in what W.H. Auden called “the Great Wrong Place”: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.
I have just invested in the HarperCollins (UK) re-issue set of the 10 Martin Beck novels. They currently sit at the center of my book collection, as they are quite frankly at the apex of this genre. To quote again from the Phoenix:
Sjöwall and Wahlöö deliver all that you want from a thriller. This would be enough to recommend “The Story of Crime,” but what Auden wrote about Raymond Chandler is true of them--they are “interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu.” Perhaps that should be amended to read that they are interested in writing detective stories so as to study a criminal milieu. For Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the milieu is not organized crime, not the Mafia or Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Mob. They studied the nature of criminal violence, what men and woman are willing to do to each other to achieve what they want. That this violence--personal and for sex, revenge, or profit--is an expression of who we are and how we live now, that a society is defined as much by its criminals as by its laws, has particular resonance for Americans in 2008.
The full Phoenix article can be found here.

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