Husband-an-wife writing team, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, collaborated on a police detective series starting in 1965 with "Roseanna", which was received to great acclaim, and going on until Wahlöö's early death in 1975. "The Laughing Policeman" is a key example, both of the style they made their own and of the working methods of their leading detective protagonist, Superintendent Martin Beck of the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm.
One wet night, the passengers on a bus are muchine-gunned down by the unknown killer and the police have to track him down with very little to go on. the public and the press assume it can only be the work of a motive-less madman but the police think there may be a sane, if dark, motive behind it.
Structured by looking back into the past lives of the victims and building up their characters and lifestyles for clues as to why they were shot and how they all came to be on the bus in the first place, the style of the novel is carefully realistic and grips the attention. Martin Beck and his detectives are also handled in a realistic manner, and the series could be categorized as belonging to police procedural fiction, where teamwork and painstaking police routine are minutely observed.
There is no omniscient, Holmesian work here, so the novel can be truthfully grim in its treatment of the professional setting, where the police are constantly struggling with administrative frustration and politically-created bureaucracy. This attention to the larger influences on the work of the police force makes "The Laughing Policeman" not only satisfyingly convincing, but also reflects the social conditions in Sweden at the time.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
She'd also lived a little, which, probably, Wahlöö might have liked. Her background, like his, was middle class – oppressive and chilly. Her parents were unhappily married. Her father was the manager of a chain of hotels and she grew up on the top floor of one of them, in the centre of Stockholm. Early on, she decided that society was much like an upmarket hotel, from the wealthy guests in the penthouse to the kitchen staff peeling potatoes in the basement, and that this was inherently wrong. "When I was 11, I realised that I did not have to live the life my mother had: school, marriage, children, apartment, summer house."
How would she have described herself? "I think I was rather tough," she replies. "You get tough when you grow up unloved. People described me as a boyish girl – rather shy, but I didn't show it. I had an attitude. I was rather wild. I lied a lot because I knew the alternative was to be punished. As I got older I realised I didn't have to lie any more and it was a nice feeling. I could be myself."
As a teenager she went to pubs and restaurants on her own at a time when young women did not do that kind of thing. She fell in with a group of artists and musicians. At the age of 21 she was just starting out as a journalist when she discovered she was pregnant by a man who had already left her. Her father tried to force her to have an abortion. A friend at work, 20 years her senior, took pity on her predicament and suggested they marry. "He was nice. I wasn't very much in love with him but I admired him." After the relationship ended she married again, this time to another older man who wanted her to live in the suburbs and have more children. This second marriage didn't last either. She was a single mother, with a six-year-old daughter, by the time she met Wahlöö.
"We met through work first. There was a place in town much like Fleet Street where all the journalists used to meet," she recalls. "We all went to the same pubs. Then Per and I started to like each other very much, so we started going to other pubs to avoid our friends and be on our own." It was complicated. "I didn't like this cheating on his wife, and he had a child. So…" she pauses, leaving the messy details in the air.
Wahlöö was commissioned to write a book which he'd work on every night in a hotel room near the bar where they drank. Each day he would drop off an envelope with the work-in-progress inside, and a note. He'd deliberately leave gaps. Why don't you fill in this bit, he'd suggest in a letter. He'd give her a female character to invent.
It sounds incredibly intimate and clandestine. They were falling in love. They could not easily meet. So they did what came naturally – they wrote for one another. It was a love affair in words on a page, a courtship of sentences. Within a year Per had left his wife, packed a meagre pile of shirts into a suitcase, and moved in with Sjöwall and her daughter Lena. Their first son, Tetz, was born nine months later. "His wife hated me of course," she says. "Now we are very good friends." They would never marry. "We said, well, obviously marriage is not the thing for us," she laughs. "We just knew we really loved each other and loved not having the papers to prove it."
They'd discussed the idea of writing a series of crime books. They talked about the crime literature that they both liked to read, progressive writers like Georges Simenon and Dashiell Hammett, who took crime writing out of the drawing room and on to the street. Their aim was something more subversive than what had gone before. "We wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they'd only sold 300 copies. We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer." They planned 10 books and 10 books only. The subtitle would be "The story of a crime" – the crime being society's abandonment of the working classes. The first plot came to them on a canal trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. "There was an American woman on the boat, beautiful, with dark hair, always standing alone. I caught Per looking at her. 'Why don't we start the book by killing this woman?' I said."
Seven months of painstaking research followed, working out the exact geography of the crime, how everything would fit together, down to the distances Beck and his team would have to travel, how much time it would take. Each chapter was plotted beforehand like a storyboard. Then they wrote every night until the manuscript was finished. Wahlöö took it to his publisher. "Per told them: 'This is by a friend of mine and I just want to hear what you think.'" The publisher liked what he read and guessed that his author was involved in some way. Wahlöö explained he'd written it with Sjöwall and a deal was struck for the 10 books. Roseanna sold moderately well, there were even one or two good reviews. "Little old ladies took the books back to the shop, complaining that they were awful, too realistic. Crime stories in those days would not describe a naked dead woman as we did. Or describe a policeman going to bed with his wife. But on the other hand, students loved them."
Roseanna was followed by The Man Who Went Up in Smoke and then The Man on the Balcony, each one written to the same 12-month timetable. Their themes often followed the news agenda: paedophilia, serial killers, the sex industry, suicide. Eventually they were able to give up their day jobs, but they were never able to survive off the books alone. "Back then no one had an agent. These days crime writers get millions and millions, they can afford to live abroad," she recalls, thinking perhaps of the phenomenal success of Henning Mankell, whose central character Kurt Wallander owes so much to Martin Beck. "We always had money problems. Sometimes I would lie awake at night wondering how to pay the rent." There is unforeseen income now from foreign deals, but because the books have never fallen out of print the deal with her Swedish publisher is still the same as it was when they originally signed. She says she does not care. "I have enough. I stay afloat."
Wahlöö fell ill four years before he died. First he complained of a swelling. Then the doctors said his lungs were full of water. Eventually they realised that his pancreas had burst. "Initially we thought this could be cured. We went to all kinds of doctors, but we didn't trust any of them. Some said go on a special diet, others wanted to cut him open. In and out of hospital and all the time he was getting thinner and thinner." By the final book, The Terrorists, he was very sick. "He knew he was going to die because he had sneaked into the professor's room and looked at his notes." They rented a bungalow in Màlaga and, for once, Wahlöö did most of the writing. Sjöwall took on the role of editor. "Sometimes he would just fall off the chair because he couldn't write any more. In the morning the words would be illegible."
It's hard to imagine: a relatively young woman, a dying soulmate, three children (a second son, Jens, had been born) and the pressure of a book, the final piece of "the project", to finish. She explains with typical honesty. "Not very good, I think. I am not Florence Nightingale. I was desperate. It made me so isolated. Yet I wanted to be with him and he wanted to be with me. So we hid. There was just Per, the children and the books."
They came home from Spain in March 1975, the book was sent to the printers and Wahlöö died in June. "He took very strong morphine tablets. Either on purpose or because, you know, if it didn't work he took one more, if that didn't work he'd take another one. He fell into a coma and never came round," she says. She pauses. "His brain was not there any more. It was terrible. I was kind of praying he would die. After three weeks he did." The relationship had lasted 13 years.
She was, she says, with a sigh, "kind of wild for a while. With guys, with pubs." With very little money, and three children to bring up, it sounds as though life was horribly chaotic. Over time there were other long-term relationships, but now she prefers to live on her own. "I know many guys. Some of them I have been together with for a while, some are just good friends. That is enough for me. I think I have a good life."
There have also been writing collaborations since, one a book called The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo with the Dutch writer Tomas Ross, which was well received. Her publishers would like her to write a memoir, "but everyone's life story is fascinating, isn't it?" she says, dismissing the idea. She still writes fiction when she isn't being asked to go abroad to speak about Wahlöö, and Martin Beck, and the 10 books she co-wrote in her 30s. She's never been persuaded to write an 11th book in the series, although she does act as a consultant on a very popular Swedish television drama based on Martin Beck. She has only one regret and that is that Wahlöö never adopted her daughter, which has meant that she's never received any money from the books, however small. "At the time we had no idea that the series would become well known." The idea that they'd be sold all over the world would have seemed outlandish.
I wonder if the society they feared has come to pass. "Yes, all of it," she replies. "Everything we feared happened, faster. People think of themselves not as human beings but consumers. The market rules and it was not that obvious in the 1960s, but you could see it coming."