Sjöwall & Wahlöö

I read the first book by this Swedish couple when I was about twenty. Quite possibly it was their fifth, Brandbilen som försvann. In the next few years, I’ve read them all except the second one in the series (Mannen som gick upp i rök). Not in the order in which they were written; it was a matter of which translation I came across next. So that for instance I got to Terroristerna (10th and thus last) just after Polismördaren (9th), but well before Roseanna (1st).

Possibly it’s partly due to this haphazard way of discovering these books that I never thought about them as a “Martin Beck series” (Beck is gradually less and less oustanding among the other characters). And I liked them the more for it. I’ve always had a soft spot for stories without a single main character. Sometimes it’s the author’s intention to treat two or more characters equally (David Lodge’s Changing Places); more often the intended main character simply isn’t any more important for me than some others in the same book (Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Sergeant-major Odd in Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore or Persse McGarrigle in Lodge’s Small World, to name but a few). Sure, I like Beck, but I like Månson, Melander, Rönn and Kollberg no less – and Larsson (who doesn’t appear before the fourth novel, Den skrattande polisen) even more.

For quite some time I considered the series to be getting better more or less in the order in which they were written, with Terroristerna the very best. However, the books are also getting ever more “political”. At first it was fascinating to observe the very faults we were ascribing to our system’s being a so-called socialist one being ascribed by Sjöwall & Wahlöö to what they saw as capitalist features in the system they lived in. You only had to supercede one country’s secret police for that of the other one, the USSR for the USA and so forth. Later (I’ve read some of the books several times) it was increasingly annoying. The criticism of the authors’ Sweden may have been well deserved; the praise of the Communist bloc is pure crap, written by somebody who didn’t know one thing about what they were writing about.

Much later it occurred to me that this might only partly be the authors’ fault. Books on this side of the Curtain had often to be not just translated, but also retouched, if they were to be allowed to be published at all. It occurred to me that buying an English translation of one of the books (I decided to try the 8th, Det slutna rummet, which I had only read once) might pleasantly surprise me.

It didn’t. Apparrently, even the originals are splendid when not dealing with politics – and revolting when they do. Consequently, their books I like the best nowadays are Brandbilen som försvann and Polis, polis, potatismos!. Compared with the later ones, what they may lack in literary qualities they quite atone for by the relative lack of the agitprop passages.

(Note: I hate the habit of renaming, rather than translating, books’ titles; that’s why I’m using the original ones despite having no Swedish.)



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