Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Sjowall and Wahloo - Under the Microscope
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A double dose!
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are not well known, at least over here, but therir influence, I think, is pervasive in the genre of crime fiction. Sjowall and Wahloo were a husband and wife writing team in Sweden; Per was a journalist and novelist, Sjowall a poet. But they came together to write a mystery series that was not quite like other mystery series. They started the series with Roseanna, in the 1960s, followed by The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. They wrote ten novels over a period of a decade, and what's interesting is that they intended the series not just as a series of clever mysteries, but as a decade long attempt to chart and explore their culture. These are realist novels, and yet somehow satire winds through them, somehow capturing both the grimness and humour of the various scenarios they look to chart and explore.
Before Sjowall and Wahloo, crime novels were clever puzzles, or black and white stories of good and evil. A lone and courageous detective, through force of wit, overcomes the villain. Sjowall and Wahloo, however, saw in the crime novel something else: an opportunity to shine a light on the dark crevices that wind between people.
Gone is the black and white, the lone detective. Their main character, Martin Beck, is certainly a smart and capable detective, but he's a man on the job. And it is just a job, though sometimes an obsessive one. He has kids he has trouble relating to, a crumbling marriage. And the cast around him is rich, and real. He's friends with some, and with others, not so much. And together they have to solve crimes. It's a group effort; these stories are not about the startling genius of a Holmes or a Poirot, but rather about the dogged intelligence of a group of people who are trying simply to do their jobs well, at least when life does not intrude.
The stories mirror real investigations. They are not linear, following a wonderful track of clues. They are happenstantial, jagged; sometimes cases stall; sometimes there are dead ends, and months of waiting, and frustration. And yet, in mirroring this fracturing, these doldrums, these moments of boredom, the novels somehow have pace; these moments almost heighten the drama, delay mechanisms that ratchet up the tension, while also allowing a moment to look closely at the people, the officers at the point of intersection with the world around them.
In Roseanna, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vattern. Unnamed and unknown. Where is she from? A tourist unclaimed. After three months, all Martin Beck knows is that her name was Roseanna and that she could have been strangled by any one of eighty-five people on a cruise boat.
In The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, Martin Beck is sent to Budapest to find a Swedish journalist who has disappeared. How does one conduct an investigation in a city that one does not know, in a place where no one speaks your language? Beck stumbles upon an international racket while following traces of his countryman. But is the man hiding, on the run, or dead? Clearly, something has happened, but what? The key, though, lies not in Budapest, but back home in Sweden.
This is a great series (I've read The Abominable Man and The Locked Room as well). Stark and sharply written. Dark and yet funny. Grim and yet not without whimsy. Clever without really needing the cleverness. You see shadows of these books everywhere. The cop dramas on television, in the movies, on the bookshelves; many of these, perhaps without knowing it, trace their roots back to a husband and wife writing team from Sweden. And yet, for all this grandfatherly influence, what always strikes me about them is how fresh they seem, how current and alive. It's the sharpness of the perception in the words, in how they peel apart the lives of people; it feels current not because its new, but because its true. Or perhaps Sjowall and Wahloo simply do it better than anyone else.