Sunday, November 22, 2009

Martin Beck, Maj Sjowall, Per Wahloo

Who would have thought that by 2010 the American hard boiled detective novel would have entered its rococo phase -- elaborately self-referential, nostalgic, decadent, rule-bound, (dare I say it?) dead?

What lives is the European model: Zolaesque examinations of society and its structures, political, leftish, unromantic (if not realist) -- what we used to call the 'gloomy police procedural.' Larsson, Mankell, Rankin, and Indriason win prizes and make millions.

The Chandler/Hammett of this new model were Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, whose novels about Swedish police detective Martin Beck are still compelling thirty years after publication. Wahloo died in 1975 and I've never read anything about them or their collaboration until this, which has a great photograph of the now 74-year-old Sjowall. Too many cool quotes to excerpt, but success-mongers should take note of this:

Today, Maj Sjöwall walks barefoot through her studio in a suburb in the south of Stockholm. Her hair is long and grey, and she's wearing a loose-fitting linen smock. The room is light-filled and simply furnished: carefully chosen pictures, notebooks, pens, everything placed just so. One might describe it as monkish, but Sjöwall's life has not been monkish, as I will find out. This is where she still works, aged 74, as a writer and a translator. There's a single bed, a fridge, a hob, for when the small apartment that she rents nearby is too stuffy during the long Swedish summer. She lives modestly. She can not afford a car. Unlike Rankin or Mankell the books she wrote with Wahlöö have not made her very rich. There has been a modest income recently from foreign sales, but the royalties she receives from her Swedish publisher are based on old contracts. She does not sound bitter about this. "Rather free than rich," she says.

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