Artillery Row Books

The Scandi-noir plot to change Sweden

Sweden couldn’t have been as bad as depicted in Sjowall and Wahloo’s novels – after all it produced ABBA and Ikea

Near the end of Sjowall and Wahloo’s great Scandi-noir novel The Laughing Policeman, detective Gunvald Larsson has a moment of epiphany – the Swedish dream is leaving many behind:

I feel sorry for nearly everyone we meet in this job. They’re just a lot of scum who wish they’d never been born. It’s not their fault that everything goes to hell and they don’t understand why. It’s types like this one who wrecked their lives. Smug swine who think only of their money and their houses and their families and their so-called status. Who think they can order others about merely because they happen to be better off. We only see their victims.

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are the grandparents of Scandinavian noir; in fact, they invented it. Without them there would be no Wallander or any of the other dysfunctional detectives wrestling with existential crises and, of course, crime.

Back in the early 60s the two were lovers, living out life in Stockholm’s alternative culture. Wahloo had been a crime reporter. Sjowall had a semi-privileged upbringing. Both were Marxists and they hatched a plan, or the project as they called it, to both comment on The Swedish Dream and bring about its downfall, or at least, to show how hypocritical they felt it was.

Sjowall and Wahloo’s books were acts of love and literature

Sjowall and Wahloo published one detective book a year for ten years from 1965. Each contained 30 chapters. Each featured a nondescript and barely likeable detective called Martin Beck. Each book had the same subtitle – the story of a crime. It is clever because the real story and the real crime is what has become of Sweden – its state and many of its people. The damning verdict is occasionally delivered through one of the characters, but mainly through the ice-cold observations of the unknown narrator. This voice has something of the Old Testament prophet about it.

The couple authored the books in an unusual way. They would write a chapter each in long-hand, often in the early hours. Then they would swap chapters, edit and type each other’s words. The result being books where you cannot see the joins between each author. It was an act of love and literature.

The main thrust of the stories is that while everything may look perfect in Sweden, it is in fact rotten to the core

As the couple reached the end of series in 1975, Wahloo died. He was only 49. Some suggested it was suicide, but this is vigorously denied. He was suffering from pancreatic cancer and was on heavy morphine and an operation had not gone well. Perhaps his deteriorating health accounts for the social commentary in his and his partner’s books, getting sharper and more direct. He was running out of time. Indeed, by volume nine, much of the charm and gentle humour of the novels has gone. The first novel, Roseaana is a straight-ish crime novel with the social commentary delivered rather tongue-in-cheek. You infer that things are not as they should be. By the last couple in the series, the gloves are off.

But despite the soap box, the novels work well as police procedurals, showing the odd heroism and graft needed to actually investigate a crime. Police work isn’t glamorous. It takes its toll on marriages.

Cop Killer, is the ninth book in the series. In a Swedish country town, a woman is murdered and dumped in a swamp. There is an obvious suspect and the pressure is to take the easy route and put him back inside. Alongside this, a gun battle breaks out between two delinquent youths and a car full of trigger-happy cops. Beck and his team are called in to investigate.

This picture taken on 15 September 2015 shows Swedish crime author Maj Sjowall in Malmo, Sweden. (Photo by JOHAN NILSSON/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

The story is good, but the social commentary is dynamite. Its main thrust is that while everything may look perfect in Sweden, it is in fact rotten to the core. The rottenness comes from stifling social conservatism, corruption in high places, inefficiency and everyday greed. The overarching malaise is topped with hypocrisy and injustice. Put simply, the rich exploit the poor and can get away with anything – even murder.

The authors lace their criticism with vivid detail and wit. Beck’s co-worker Kollberg points out that, “the whole country was littered with old cars that people just abandoned.” It was the cheapest way of getting rid of them. In the same way, people can be discarded too.

Early in the book, Beck flies into Malmo’s airport. It has been built, we are told, in the foggiest part of the whole country and in precisely the wrong place for travel into the city. In the process, the building of the airport has done untold ecological damage:

“The damage was extensive and irreparable and constituted an act of gross ecological malfeasance typical of the anti-humanitarian cynicism that has become increasingly characteristic of what the government called A More Compassionate Society, this expression in turn represented a cynicism so boundless that the common man had difficulty grasping it.”

The airport is “a monstrous a design catastrophe and filled with the odour of incompetence and corruption”.

If you think the airports are bad, then the hospitals are even worse. Mard, a wizened old sailor says:

“I’ve been in hospital in North Korea and Honduras and the Dominican Republic and in Pakistan and in Ecuador. But I’ve never seen one any worse than the one right one right here in Malmo, last summer. I was crammed into a ward that must have been built in 1890. There were 29 of us in there and 17 had just come out of surgery… We’re supposed to keep our mouth shut – after all it’s free. Free!”

Later, the narrator tells us that a ward in the hospital “held 30 men and echoed with groans and whimpering cries for help. The stench was unspeakable and the whole scene was strongly reminiscent of a first-aid post in the Crimean war.”

The authors portray a population hooked on pills and booze and bereft of hope

But what is the effect of all this? The authors portray a population hooked on pills and booze and bereft of hope. Martin Beck is only too aware of the desperation that is all around him. “For a large part of the population, alcohol and drugs seemed to be the only way out, this applied to the young as well as the old.” Mard, who acts as a voice of conscience and truth, points out: “the welfare state, I heard about it all over the world. And then when you see this… country, you wonder how in hell you’ve managed to spread all those lies and propaganda.” After this, Mard drinks a big glass of smuggled and overproof vodka. Who can blame him? The wound that Beck and others are bothered by, isn’t just the actuality of the suffering but the fantasy that all is actually well.

Finally, and most prescient, is the analysis of the police force: its increasing militarisation and incompetence and the way it bullies whole sections of society. It has become an armed militia.

Ellison is one of the police officers shot by a young malcontent in a gun battle.

Beck and many of his colleagues despair, but they are powerless to stop it happening. “Busloads of policemen wearing bulletproof vests and helmets with adjustable plexiglass face marks … sharp shooters and automatic weapons and tear gas bombs all of which were now available on permanent loan from the military.”

Beck’s colleague, Kohlberg reaches the end of his tether and finally tenders his resignation:

When the police force sets a bad example, violent crime immediately increases. What I’m trying to say, is that I cannot continue to be a policeman. It is possible that every society has the police force it deserves, but that is not a thesis I intend to try and develop at least not here and now. When I joined the Police Department, I could not have imagined that this profession would undergo the transformation or take on the direction that it has. After 27 years of service, I find that I am so ashamed of my profession that my conscience will no longer permit me to practice it.

It is hard to think of a more eloquent description of a hatred of violence and a longing for justice.

Sjowall died in 2020. Beck never made her rich, far from it, despite her characters featuring in 38 films. She acknowledged that in the end her and her partner’s bold project had failed.

The Swedish Method had almost perfect soil in which to flourish. Sweden had remained neutral during the war and its industry and people were intact. It had a wealth of natural resources and an industrialised people. By 65, perhaps the cracks were beginning to show.

So, what do we make of these extraordinary books? There is certainly some unease about them. Attitudes to woman are appalling. The polemic can sometimes seem a bit, well, obvious. Most of all, we acknowledge the picture drawn, but ask what is the authors’ solution to the problems? How would they fix it? Of course, authors have no obligation to say how to fix anything. But it would be good to know, wouldn’t it?

I am inherently suspicious of social commentators of any persuasion; I always find myself asking how they know so much and if they have all the answers why aren’t they doing something useful to help?

I am a child of the Welfare State and I hold it very dear. My children were born in the local maternity hospital. My GP is amazing. I have had to sign-on in earlier times. All my family work in caring professions. I am glad to live in a country with a Welfare State. Also, for a long period, I was an entrepreneur and I understand the need to generate wealth and opportunity as well.

The Beck novels are about a time and place, not so much about all Welfare States. They are the product of putting a society through a kind of CT scan. You can see the tumours and the broken bones. But you miss the beauty of the whole body, warts-and-all. Sweden couldn’t have been that bad – after all it produced ABBA and Saabs and Ikea.

Prophets don’t predict the future – they comment on the current situation and issue warnings. We do well to listen to them, but not take what they say as gospel.

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