Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Beck and the birth of Nordic Noir

 In the ten years between 1965 and 1975, the author team of Maj Sjowell and Per Walhoo all but invented the Nordic Noir movement - they took their influence from American fiction, specifically the work of Ed McBain and even more specifically his 87th Precinct series.

 To say the pair invented Nordic Noir is not an exaggeration since their influence has been openly acknowledged by the likes of Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum and just about anyone who is anyone in the crime fiction sub-genre that has become known as Nordic.

I've seen articles that call them a husband and wife writing team, but in truth the pair were partners but never married  during their thirteen year relationship - Sjowell had been married twice previously and Per Wahloo already had a wife. 

They were both journalists and very politically minded - they were Marxists and on times their world view sneaks into the books, how could it not!, but the books are never didactic and there is plenty of wry humour in the series. The main character, the policeman Martin Beck actually loathes politics and the authors were careful that Beck would take no obvious political stance. This may have allowed them to explore the society they lived in with a fresh set of eyes, free of prejudice. 

They used their fiction to explore the moral grey areas of the socialist state within which they lived; charting Sweden's building of its famous welfare state. They touched opon the formation of a police state, the alienation of many citizens and tackled immigration and racism head on.

And this did all this in a series of ten widely entertaining police procedurals, the ripples of which are still spreading out today and touching the pen of many an author.

The Wiki entry on the Beck series reads:

Martin Beck is a fictional Swedish police detective and the main character in the ten novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, collectively titled The Story of a Crime. Frequently referred to as the Martin Beck stories, all have been adapted into films between 1967 and 1994, six of which were included in a series featuring Gösta Ekman as Martin Beck. Between 1997 and 2018 there have also been 38 films (some released direct for video and broadcast on television) based on the characters, with Peter Haber as Martin Beck. Apart from the core duo of Beck and his right-hand man Lennart Kollberg, the latter have little resemblance to the original series, and features a widely different and evolving cast of characters, though roughly similar themes and settings around Stockholm.

I came upon the series after hearing a Radio Four play of the first book in the series, Roseanna and I was intrigued enough to explore the books, learning as I did that prior to the Beck books the Scandinavian crime fiction market took the Agatha Christie novels as their blueprint; predominantly focusing on the mystery aspect of the fiction rather than the very real outward effects of the crime itself.

 SJowall and Wahloo turned all this on its head and their books detail police investigations in great detail, much in the way the best of the Ed McBain books do. Nothing in fiction is truly innovative since all writers are drawing on what went before, but the Beck books were handled with such skill and genuine compassion for the underdogs in society that they became a series that could stand on its own and was soon recognised as something quite unique.

There are ten books in the series, and as things progress they become darker in tone and out protagonist, the dogged policeman is put through the mill - his marriage eventually falls apart, his health deteriorates, and his determination to do his job to the best of his abilities comes at the expense of every thing else in his life. You find shades of Beck in the likes of Wallander, Harry Hole and just about any fictional detective you care to name.

If one was to define the elements that make up the Nordic Noir movement the list would be something like:

A brutal crime or a series of such crimes.

A socio-political element to the story.

A strong focus on setting; usually bleak and often very bloody cold.

Strong multi-dimensional female characters.

The Beck books contain all of these elements, and their series defined what would become the Nordic Noir movement.

The books in order:

  • 1.   Roseanna: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 2.   The Man Who Went Up in Smoke: A Martin Beck Police Mystery
  • 3.   The Man on the Balcony: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 4.   The Laughing Policeman: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 5.   The Fire Engine That Disappeared: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 6.   Murder at the Savoy: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 7.   The Abominable Man: A Martin Beck Police Mystery
  • 8.   The Locked Room: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 9.   Cop Killer: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 
  • 10.   The Terrorists: A Martin Beck Police Mystery 

Then ten books come out at an estimated 657,820 words.

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