Before Stieg Larsson, There was Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

With the hype and phenomenal success of the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, a lot of news outlets have been asking the natural but obvious question: who’s the next big breakout star? Is he or she Scandinavian? Or from some other country? Or not writing thrillers? But too many of these pieces seem to think the Scandinavian crime wave began in the past decade or so and don’t reference Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, whose 10-book “Story of Crime” novels featuring the ordinary, dour but always fascinating detective Martin Beck not only paved the way for Scandinavian crime writers, but for the genre as a whole.

I’ve wanted to write about Sjowall & Wahloo for many months, ever since Vintage started reissuing the books with striking new covers (cribbed from the UK editions, published by HarperCollins) and introductions from notable types like Henning Mankell, Val McDermid and Michael Connelly explaining how each book and the whole arc merits close reading. Then I found out for myself starting with ROSEANNA, working my way through the tenth and final book THE TERRORISTS, which is reissued today. And that book, in particular, seems a natural segue to Larsson’s books – it’s the most overtly political, the most pointed, the most rooted in frustration at the system and outrage over how women are abused and tossed aside by system, and by men.

There’s much more detail in my essay, which runs today at The Daily Beast, but the quote that really hit home how Sjowall & Wahloo influenced Larsson comes near the end of the series, when Beck is told this: “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.”

(For further reading, see the Guardian’s profile of Maj Sjowall, still alive at age 75, and Tom Nolan’s 2009 Sjowall/Wahloo essay in the WSJ.)