Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sjöwall Wahlöö

Been working my way through the Sjöwall-Wahlöö canon of crime novels in audio book form to whittle away the commute in the mornings. They're probably the first internationally renowned crime writers to come out of Sweden, and their influence on everyone ever since cannot be overestimated. The first thing that is striking is the wonderful portrait of Sweden in the sixties and seventies, and the overt social criticism, if not political activism, that runs like a red thread through all of the books. The Swedish cradle-2-grave wellfare state had just begun being dismantled, and S&W are not afraid to spell out the consequences that this had for many people at the time. Mostly, the criminals are treated as victims of society, and the central quartet of policemen at the 'Riksmordskommissionen' (National Murder Squad) are generally sensible, humane and oppose the carrying of side arms much for the same reason as the UK police force. The Swedish secret services are pictured as complete useless morons, and the uniformed police as either violent psychopaths or Nazis. Or both.

For me, what makes the books particularly enjoyable is that it feels like 'real' police work. These are no genius super-sleuths along the lines of Holmes or Morse. The main character, Martin Beck, frequently touches on the point that murders are more often than not solved by coincidences - a car pulled over due to a broken tail light or something. The job of the Police is toö make sure that the net of potential coincidences is as tight as possible.

The books do paint a pretty sordid picture of Sweden, but it is interesting how many of the accusations levelled are equally relevant today. Or, to put it another way, things that seem wrong in today's society were already broken 30 years ago. I frequently snigger to myself at the descriptions of corruption and incompetence that could have been taken from yesterday's papers.

The original books have all been filmed, and the characters are now franchised into a long-running series of new material not written by the original authors (Per Wahlöö has passed away). Swedish film maker Bo Widerberg made the middle book - Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle - into a wonderful film in 1976, but the newer fayre is of varying quality.

The series of books have influenced everyone from Mankell, Larsson and Nesser, especially Mankell with his equally thinly veiled social commentary.

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