Maj Sjowall, Godmother of Nordic Noir, Dies at 84
Maj Sjowall, a Swedish novelist who collaborated with her companion on a series of celebrated police procedurals that heralded the crime-fiction genre of Nordic Noir (including the wildly successful books of Stieg Larsson), died on Wednesday in a hospital in Landskrona, Sweden. She was 84.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Ann-Marie Skarp, chief executive of Piratforlaget, the books’ Swedish publisher. In recent years Ms. Sjowall lived on Ven, a small island off the southwestern coast of Sweden.
With their first novel, “Roseanna” (1965), about the strangling death of a young tourist, Ms. Sjowall and Per Wahloo, her writing and domestic partner, introduced Martin Beck, an indefatigable, taciturn homicide detective in Stockholm.
“He is not a heroic person,” Ms. Sjowall (pronounced SHO-vall) told the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2015. “He is like James Stewart in some American films, just a nice guy trying to do his job.”
Mr. Wahloo died shortly before their 10th Beck mystery, “The Terrorists,” was published in 1975, and Ms. Sjowall never revisited the detective again.
Wendy Lesser, the author of “Scandinavian Noir: In Search of a Mystery” (2020), said in an email that Ms. Sjowall and Mr. Wahloo’s novels “had a direct or indirect influence on every subsequent mystery writer in Scandinavia,” among them Henning Mankel and Jo Nesbo, as well as on American crime writers like Michael Connelly.
Mr. Larsson’s posthumously-published trilogy of Millennium novels — including “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” — “are highly derivative of all previous-to-him Scandinavian thriller writers,” Ms. Lesser added.
Maj Sjowall was born on Sept. 25, 1935 in Stockholm, where she grew up on the top floor of one of the hotels her father managed. She recalled an unhappy, unloved childhood.
She was a single mother at 21 — her boyfriend had left her before her daughter, Lena Sjowall, was born — then married and divorced two older men by the time she met Mr. Wahloo, a left-wing journalist and novelist, in about 1962.
Ms. Sjowall was a magazine art director, and the two worked for different publications owned by the same publisher. They fell in love discussing a crime series that would focus on a single detective. They also wanted their books to reflect their Marxist views.
“We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer,” Ms. Sjowall said in an interview with The Guardian in 2009.
From the beginning, they planned 10 books, which they wrote at night while her daughter and their sons, Jens and Tetz Sjowall Wahloo, slept. Facing each other across a table, they wrote alternate chapters in longhand. The next night, they edited and typed the other’s work, mindful of finding a style that appealed to a broad audience,
“We never talked about the story when we were writing it,” she said to The Telegraph. “The only things we said were, ‘Pass me the cigarettes,’ or, ‘It’s your turn to make some more tea.’”
They got the idea behind “Roseanna” as they watched an American woman standing alone on a ferry trip from Stockholm to Gothenburg. “I caught Per looking at her,” she told The Guardian, and she asked, “Why don’t we start the book by killing this woman?”
In their description of the fictionalized woman’s body being dredged out of a canal, they wrote: “A group of amazed people gathered around and stared at her. Some of them were children and shouldn’t have been there but not one thought to send them away. But all of them had one thing in common: they would never forget how she looked.”
After Mr. Wahloo’s death (the two never married), her literary output slowed. She collaborated with Tomas Ross, a Dutch writer, on the crime novel “The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo” (1990) and translated some of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective novels into Swedish.
Ms. Sjowall is survived by her three children and five grandchildren.
The last Martin Beck book was published 45 years ago, and Ms. Sjowall remained surprised that the stories continued to resonate with readers and fans of the Swedish TV series.
“This is a part of my life that I didn’t expect,” she told The Guardian. “I never thought the books would last all my life, or that I’d still be thinking about them after all this time.”
The article was originally published by Newyorktimes