Paths crossed, many, many, many times: Maj Sjowall

The Times obituary of Maj Sjöwall had a photo of her taken a few years ago. I was glad to see it because I now know what Rhea Nielsen looks like.

Of course I sort of knew what Rhea looks like because Sjöwall and her partner Per Wahlöö had described Rhea quite precisely in the three Martin Beck books in which she appears, starting with The Locked Room — when we and Martin Beck first meet her.

I’d always thought Rhea was based on Maj.

Just realized I used the present tense when I mentioned Rhea and the books. And that’s right. The books are as present to me as any fiction I read and re-read endless times. In fact, I just finished The Terrorists, the last of the series, again, after having re-read the previous nine. In order.

Ten books only, and since they were written between 1965 and 1975, they should be dated here and there. But if they are, because the technology of police investigations has advanced mightily, I haven’t noticed, probably because solving crimes in these procedurals involves sometimes tedious police work and thinking about things, rather than CSI and computer searches. It’s a different angle, requiring intelligence rather than IT. Intelligence is never dated.

The books have so engaged me, I’ve bought maps of Stockholm and Sweden, so I can see where Martin Beck and his colleagues have gone for cases. Motola, Anderslöv, Malmö (this pic is of the Savoy Hotel, where Martin Beck stays to work on the Murder at the Savoy). Streets in Stockholm, including the one where Martin Beck lives after his divorce. I’ve worn out several editions of the Martin Beck series and have almost worn out the map.

A year or so ago, I found myself Googling those places because I wanted to see them beyond the books’ descriptions. To my intense delight, I learned that the canal boat Diana, where the murder that initiates Roseanna takes place — and which I’d always assumed was a fictional name — actually exists as the Diana. And I could, if I chose to, book the same canal cruise on which Roseanna died. And book more or less the same cabin.

When I subscribed to the European TV channel MhZ, I discovered the TV series,”Beck,” mentioned in the Times obit. The films (each around 90 minutes long) are not adaptations of the books but an imaginative continuation of Martin Beck’s career, along with a surprising colleague from the books. I more or less binged, allowing myself one film a night for weeks.

The ten books are perfection. So I was glad to see that when Richard Sandomir, who wrote the obit, decided to compare these books and their protagonist, Martin Beck, to others, he cited Simenon’s Maigret stories and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Both of these writers are literary geniuses.

Although they are considered the foundation of what’s called Nordic noir, the Martin Beck books are sui generis. No Scandinavian writer — or any other writer — has come close to them.

It reminds me of something I read once about Simenon. Someone, don’t remember who, described the Maigret series thusly (my transliteration): “You read them and wonder, Why has no one ever done this before? And then you think, Why has no one ever been able to do this since?”

Even if I were prone to say things like “Rest in peace, Maj,” which I’m not and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t appreciate it anyway, she need not rest, not ever. Because I have those ten books on my shelf and I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading through them all again. Quite soon.



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