The Shivering Detectives

The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Nolan had a piece today about a Renaissance of Scandinavian crime writing, which is reaching a new level this spring with Kenneth Branagh’s miniseries adaptation of Kurt Wallander novels. But as Nolan notes, this flowering of procedurals in celsius did not begin with Mankell’s The Faceless Killers was released in 1991, but dates back to the ten novels Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began writing in 1965.

Nolan quotes Sjöwall:

[Back then] Swedish crime-writers wrote Agatha Christie-like books and seldom had policemen as main characters. Crime novels were considered pulp-literature in those days. Intellectuals rarely admitted to reading those kinds of books. We wanted to contribute to improving the linguistic quality, and to changing the way media treated that type of literature.

Their Martin Beck, a detective with a stomach and marriage trouble, prefigures Mankell’s Wallander, whose alcoholism and estranged daughter add emotional heft to his investigations. The crimes they investigate are brutal, and they navigate them without the reassuring suavity of a noir detective.

Every one of their books has been adapted for film or TV, and an American movie was made of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Detective in 1973. Directed by Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg, it made bloody Stockholm into Bloody San Francisco.

Check out a trailer below if you want a reminder of how purple the ’70s were:

Well reviewed when it first ran in England, Branagh’s series concludes on Sunday on PBS.


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