Maj Sjöwall (born 1935) and her husband Per Wahlöö (1926-75) transformed what was an overtly conservative and cosy genre in their home country into a radicalized vehicle for social criticism and left-wing political commentary, making realism, society, politics the by-words of the Swedish police procedural. Their ten novels — all subtitled 'novel about a crime' — appeared in the '60s and '70s about Inspector Martin Beck and his team of investigators in Stockholm, although there is regular input from colleagues in Malmö.

Ironically, although they did indeed update the detective story, their intentions were not to update the genre but to hijack it, to gain a wide audience and specific platform for their political views. They had a clear plan and clear aims and intentions before writing their ten police procedurals. Part of the plan was to usher their political agenda in gradually. "From the beginning we planned it that our mask would begin to fall from around the fourth or fifth book", says Per Wahlöö. The last books reflect a criticism of the development of the police force towards greater centralization, and the appearance of a more military set-up. The increasing criticism of society is partly shown in an increase in direct comment by the omniscient third-person narrator. Social criticism and political comment is also introduced through the changing type of crimes and criminals they choose to depict. Initially the criminals in their novels are fairly conventional for the genre and readers are only introdcued to a fairly shadowy picture of them. Yet by the later books, we meet them as individuals and become aware of their social problems.

At a time when realism and documentarism were in vogue in mainstream literature in Sweden, Sjöwall and Wahlöö bring to the detective novel an added realism. They carried out careful research before embarking on their project and they have clearly benefited from Per Wahlöö's experience as a crime reporter in Stockholm.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö's books have appeared in at least 25 different countries and in numerous translations.

We present Neil Smith's translation of an extract from Polis, polis, potatismos (The Big Fish Always Get Away).
Contents