Maj Sjöwall talks with Ian Rankin

This is the second of four reports from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The event featured Maj Sjöwall in discussion with Ian Rankin. Together with Per Wahlöö, Maj wrote the ten novels of the Martin Beck series, the first appearing in 1965 and the last in the year of Per’s death, 1975.

The discussion confirmed what everyone knows, that referring to these books as the Martin Beck series was not the authors’ idea. Beck is one character of several and no more important than some of the others, such as Lennart Kollberg and Gunvald Larsson and, in some of the books, their colleague from Malmö, Per Månsson.

The novels are often referred to as ‘police procedurals’, to distinguish them from puzzle books of the Agatha Christie variety. Sjöwall was asked if they had much help from the police in establishing what their procedures were. The answer was none at all, most of their account of police procedure was ‘guesswork’. (This must surely give some hope to writers of such books who find research tedious.)

Their plan was to write ten books, thirty chapters in each, three hundred chapters in all. Rankin pointed out that one of the books had twenty-eight chapters and another twenty-nine. On the one hand, Sjöwall seemed to indicate that she hadn’t noticed that – and on the other that she had, and they restructured the books in question so that they now had thirty chapters. This may be the case in the Swedish editions, but Rankin thought it was not in the English language editions.

Sjöwall has also worked as a translator, having translated twelve Ed McBain novels into Swedish. Rankin had heard that when the translator of the Martin beck series into Japanese got stuck on a word or phrase, he/she solved the problem by omitting the sentence altogether. This, Sjöwall thought, would make the book somewhat thinner. Rankin himself said he found it irritating that US editions of his books substituted ‘boardwalk’ for ‘pavement’ and ‘trunk’ for ‘boot’. One of his books is titled ‘Fleshmarket Close’. It is named after a location in Edinburgh. His American publishers insisted on changing the title to Fleshmarket Alley, on the grounds that US readers wouldn’t know what a close was. Well maybe it’s time they found out, and how are they going to do that if US publishers withhold the information from them?

Sjöwall and Wahlöö intended to use their books as a vehicle through which they could advance a critique of Swedish society from a left wing perspective. Sjöwall describes herself as a socialist and Wahlöö was a Marxist. The last word of the last book is ‘Marx’. Whether you give the books full Marx or half Marx is up to you.

The event was mildly entertaining but added nothing of significance to the sum of human knowledge.

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