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07.26.10

The Original Stieg Larsson

Before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, a Swedish couple wrote a series of detective novels (featuring an abused woman) that had an eerie influence on Larsson. Sarah Weinman on the original Scandinavian crime sensation.

The global phenomenon that is Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy has been nothing short of awe-inspiring—all the more so since the author has been dead for almost six years. Starting with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson's thrillers have sold more than 40 million copies to date, and here in the U.S., the Swedish author's books are the first novels-in-translation to top bestseller lists in recent memory. No wonder the media's looking for the next big Scandinavian thriller writer to anoint—and if that doesn't work, perhaps some other country will produce the next hot commercial property.

One more cruel irony links Sjöwall and Wahlöö with Larsson: Because Sjöwall and Wahlöö never married, and he never formally adopted her daughter, she hasn’t earned any royalties from the books.

But before Stieg, before Henning Mankell, even before the so-called Scandinavian crime wave first took hold in mystery-community circles years ago and exploded over the last 12 months (helped immeasurably by the movies starring Noomi Rapace as the ass-kicking, ever-taciturn hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander—and a forthcoming American remake helmed by David Fincher), there was one singular team of common-law-married journalists who shaped that very crime wave with a 10-book arc—and also changed the world of crime fiction forever.

Like Larsson, this couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, set out to unearth and expose the darker undercurrents of a supposedly placid Swedish society. Like Larsson, they made clear their sympathies with the disenfranchised and let their leftist political leanings show in plain and pointed strokes. Their narrative methods are different, but their influence upon Larsson, and the genre as a whole, produces downright eerie parallels.

book-cover---roseanna-a-martin-beck-policy-mystery
Roseanna: A Martin Beck Policy Mystery. By Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. 224 pages. Vintage. $13.95. ()

Before embarking on what became The Story of Crime, Per Wahlöö was a noted crime reporter and novelist in his own right, while Maj Sjöwall, a decade younger, was a seasoned journalist but novice fiction writer. At night, after their children were asleep, they carefully planned out and executed what in hindsight is extraordinary: 10 police procedurals that are just as much about crime investigation as they are about its detective, Martin Beck, and about Swedish society in a very tumultuous time, completed right before Wahlöö's untimely 1975 death of cancer, at age 48. Their debut Roseanna (1965) was a wonderful surprise when I first read it a couple of years ago because the prose was so assured, not a word was wasted, and as Mankell points out in the introduction to the reissued edition, it's one of the first crime novels where time itself plays a major role.

By that he means, and I soon discovered, that the pacing is languid and perfectly in keeping with real police procedure. The titular murder victim in question is unidentified for months, and her killer not apprehended for many more months afterward. In middle age and of middling height, Beck is the antithesis of a superhero. He doesn't charm anyone, is prone to indecision about his personal life, and has depressive tendencies. But what makes him an outstanding detective is his quiet doggedness, and his ability to circle again and again on the most minute details until the pearl of a clue is given up like the proverbial oyster.

And over the course of all 10 books, Sjöwall and Wahlöö keep time as close to then-current events. The far-off Vietnam War provokes passionate conversation. Computers are introduced, somewhat reluctantly for Beck and his policing compatriots, to offer the illusion of a centralized force. Fashions change as Martin ditches more formal wear for the more casual fare favored in the late 1960s. And Martin transforms from unhappily married father of two into a more content, divorced bachelor tentatively exploring new romance with a more free-spirited social worker.

Above all, the books are about violence, and about the failures of a capitalist society to prevent the seeds from flowering into deadly plants—sound familiar? With scalpel-like precision, Sjöwall and Wahlöö examine a spate of horrors that aren't supposed to strike a peaceful burg like Stockholm: serial child killings ( The Man on the Balcony), mass murder on a bus ( The Laughing Policeman), which won an Edgar Award and is arguably the best known of the series), the murder of a policeman with unsavory secrets ( The Abominable Man), and in The Terrorists, the last and most overtly political of the novels, an eerily prescient series of crimes against political figures, homegrown and foreign.

Taken as a whole, The Story of Crime set the mold for how crime fiction needed to develop in a more socially progressive time. While Sjöwall and Wahlöö took some cues from American mystery novels, most obviously the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain (though the duo wouldn't admit this particular influence for years), mostly they worked in their own stubborn vacuum, convinced their way of storytelling was the true one. As a 2009 Guardian profile of Sjöwall, now 75, pointed out, we are so accustomed to the now-clichéd depressed detective prone to drink that it's easy to forget that Beck was the prototype—and that his freshness makes many of his literary descendants seem trite.

book-cover---the-terrorists
The Terrorists: A Novel. By Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. 304 pages. Vintage. $14. ()

The end of the arc struck the most overt notes with respect to Sjöwall and Wahlöö's political leanings (the final word of the series, after all, is "Marx") and The Terrorists, in particular, is a near-effortless bridge point between their chief concerns and those that play out in contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction—especially Stieg Larsson's novels. The bullheaded actions of the Security Police (Säpo) could easily give way to the rogue group dubbed the “Zalachenko Club” that, according to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, would have begun only a year after The Terrorists was published. Martin Beck's world-weary demeanor is tested by authority figures more concerned with actions smacking of latter-day security theater and the absence of his best friend and former partner Kollberg, recently resigned when his leftist leanings no longer fit the law-and-order bill.

But the earliest seeds for Larsson's fictional pursuits strike the clearest note with Rebecka Lind, a young woman ill at ease in the world, neglected and abused by the system and by men closest to her, whose initial alleged criminal actions are both unwitting and grossly misinterpreted such that later misdeeds are shocking and sadly inevitable. "For a pure-hearted thinking person," says Lind's lawyer at one point, "a system such as ours must be incomprehensible and hostile."

Lind found a way to fight and was punished, a sober reminder that justice doesn't prevail. Salander, her kindred spirit, possesses many of the same traits and faces similar abuses by the system, is redeemed as an avenging-angel type, more superheroine than heroine. Larsson's treatment of Salander feels like a direct response to Sjöwall and Wahlöö's more understated, frustration-borne treatment of reality. (The film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo even presented an ironic in-joke, casting Peter Haber—who has portrayed Martin Beck on Swedish TV and film for over a decade—in a pivotal, villainous role.)

"Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last 10 years. You can't stop or steer that avalanche on your own. It just increases. That's not your fault." Those words seem as if they could have come straight from one of the Millenium novels had they continued to Larsson's planned 10 books—another instance of taking a cue from his crime-writing elders. One more cruel irony links Sjöwall and Wahlöö with Larsson: Because Sjöwall and Wahlöö never married, and he never formally adopted her daughter, she hasn't earned any royalties from the books, which are published globally and have never been out of print in the United States.

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Sarah Weinman contributes to the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post and many other print and online publications, and blogs about books and the publishing industry at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.