Wahlöö, Per 1927–1975
Wahlöö was a Swedish journalist and novelist and his wife Maj Sjöwall is a Swedish journalist and poet. Together they created crime novels with a succinct style much like Wahlöö's earlier work. Their clever, intricate mysteries present, through their protagonist, detective Martin Beck, "personal, acrid critiques of Sweden's bourgeois welfare state." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö burst upon the American scene with Roseanna, the first of their imaginative police procedural novels starring that deceptive detective ordinaire, Martin Beck…. [They] have become the undisputed stars of Scandinavian mystery and, indeed, rank internationally among the peers of the genre. (p. 56)
O. L. Bailey, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 5, 1972.
The work of the Swedish writer Peter Wahloo … is of two different kinds. He has written at least two novels which combine the moral symbolism of Dürrenmatt with a flavor of Orwellian fantasy. Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (1966) and The Steel Spring (1970) make their points about dictatorship and paternalism through the medium of crime, and Chief Inspector Jensen, who appears in both books, is trying to discover the nature of society in terms of what is called criminal activity. The books that Wahloo (now Per and not Peter) has written in collaboration with Maj Sjöwall are less ambitious and more successful. They are police investigations carried out by Inspector Beck, a gloomy version of Freeling's Van der Valk, and they might come under the heading of "Police Novels" except that the authors are still more interested in the philosophic implications of crime than in straightforward police routine. The Man on the Balcony (1968), The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1969), and The Laughing Policeman (1970) are markedly individual and very good. (pp. 197-98)
Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972.
When this reviewer read Goffredo Parise's "The Boss" and Rex Warner's "The Aerodrome," he felt icicles of fear in his blood; but "The Thirty-First Floor" does more than chill. It almost forces its reader to imitate Paul Revere, to alert his fellow citizens to the imminent danger, worse than the landing of the British at that time: "It not only can happen here; it may be happening already." This is another alarming book! it must be read. (p. 440)
Oscar A. Bouise, in Best Sellers (copyright 1973, by the University of Scranton), October 1, 1973.
[The Generals] is a grim little parable loosely based on the political and social set-up in his native Sweden. Too loosely, as it happens, to make effective, specific satire. And if the author is hoping that The Generals may be read for universal implications, then his message seems only too obvious.
The narrative of The Generals takes the form of the oral proceedings in the court-martial of an ordinary citizen heavily and unwillingly involved in a country's suicidal transformation from a comfortable social democracy into a vicious banana republic. He is thus indictable, by the military dictatorship in power, for virtually every civil and military offence—since, by following helplessly in the wake of events he has unwittingly committed crimes against successive sets of laws. The shape taken by the novel is original, but it is an originality which works against narrative pace and interest. The story must perforce be told, with considerable contrivance, through the archives and documents quoted and the evidence given at the trial. Mr Wahloo's thriller-writer's skill injects some tension into the situation, yet such a method would have hampered the most ingenious and economical of writers….
The serious moral, in so far as Mr Wahloo is concerned with one, seems to be that boredom with a complacently well-ordered society can have disastrous consequences if people try to puncture it with far-fetched libertarian alternatives: the banner of revolution, however modest, is inevitably raised by incipient authoritarians. It might be well to have this said for the democratic society Mr Wahloo is implicitly defending, just as Animal Farm made the point about bloody revolution against an autocratic regime. Yet to invoke Orwell shows just how far The Generals falls short.
"The Way It Won't Be," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 19, 1974, p. 409.
[In their Martin Beck Series the] Wahlöös wanted to trace a decade in the life of Inspector Beck, an intelligent, conscientious policeman trying to do his job in what they regarded as a high-handed, soulless, Kafka-like bureaucracy. For the Wahlöös, little remains of the early promise of what Marquis Childs once called the Swedish "middle way." Their disillusionment is filtered through the personality of Beck, their policeman.
[Beck's] sour stomach provides a barometer to both his unhappy marriage and the state of Swedish life. (p. 28)
Each book can stand by itself, but to be savored fully, it should be read as part of a running saga. Beck changes and so do his views of himself as well as society. Characters drop out and reappear. The murderer in the first novel, Roseanna, a sad man driven to an insane frenzy by sexual prudishness when he is teased by an oversexed coquette, returns in Cop Killer, the ninth, as a victim when police and neighbors rush to judgment because of his past. In The Locked Room, Beck is recovering, both in body and spirit, from a near-fatal wound suffered in The Abominable Man. In that case, a retired police inspector, allowed to practice sadism under the cloak of his official uniform, is killed by another policeman whose wife was left to lie and die in a drunk cell while in a diabetic coma. In Murder at the Savoy, Beck, an honest, dogged investigator, doesn't hide his disgust for the victim, Viktor Palmgren, an industrialist who had made a fortune by ignoring the welfare of his employees and by running guns to Angola and South Africa. Some of the other books have titles that sound like those children's tales—The Fire Engine That Disappeared and The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. The best of the lot may be the first, Roseanna, and The Laughing Policeman. (pp. 28-9)
Lately, Beck has allowed his gloomy philosophizing to interfere with the dispatch of his police work. And he can become a trifle querulous and tiresome in his unabated attacks on the Swedish establishment. I'm very fond of Beck, but I can't help thinking that it would be pleasanter if he just weren't so sour and could laugh without much cause (a trait that Beck himself envies in a colleague). Now that he has found Rhea, a younger woman with a relaxed life style and philosophy, perhaps Beck can find a measure of personal contentment and get back to his ship models despite the stultifying atmosphere that he feels within the Swedish welfare state. (p. 29)
Jean M. White, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 31, 1976.