Saturday, January 22, 2011

Colin Dexter on Sjöwall, Wahlöö, and Swedish sex

I've just has a couple of beers and a plate of fish and chips at my local, and I'm ready for a snooze, so I'll let Colin Dexter do the honors for today.

Dexter is yet another of the current crime authors who wrote introductions to the (relatively) recent editions of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck mysteries (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard in the U.S., Harper Perennial in the U.K., at least in paperback).

The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) came fifth in the series and, writes Dexter, "My first preconception was that this husband-and-wife team, with a political stance well to the left, had become rather too bitterly cynical in the sixties and seventies of what they saw as the betrayal of many of their Socialist ideas and ideals."

We took care of that here two weeks ago; Detectives Beyond Borders readers know that strong political sensibilities do not preclude acute observation and sensitive, entertaining storytelling.

We also know about Sjöwall and Wahlöö's wit, though I am pleased to add such a distinguished witness for the defense as Dexter against the canard that Scandinavians aren't funny. "What struck me" about The Fire Engine That Disappeared, writes Inspector Morse's creator, "was the gently underplayed humour of the writing."

One of Dexter's preconceptions involved Ed McBain's influence on Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and I'll save that matter for another post. Another was his belief that anything coming out of Sweden in the 1960s must be saturated with explicit sex.

Instead, he writes, "Sex plays only a very small part in the novel; and what sex we do find is handled with an almost serene simplicity." And if that isn't a beautifully sane (and accurate) assessment, I don't know what is.

Thanks, Colin; and goodnight, readers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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34 Comments:

Anonymous adrian said...

Serene sex doesnt sound like a whole lot of fun to me but I think Dexter means it as a positive.

I'll never understand the English. I lived over there for six years but I still dont know how they keep producing one generation after another. All the odds are against it, yet it keeps happening.

It was no surprise to me that the first test tube baby and cloned sheep were English inventions. They'll do anything to avoid the nasty even inventing five day long cricket matches.

January 22, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Funny! Yet this is the country that produced FANNY HILL and MY SECRET LIFE. Though perhaps there has been an attitudinal change over the centuries. The good, clean fun sex of the 18th century transitioned into the dirty little secrets of the 19th, and, what?, abstinence?, in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Possibly it's a world-wide phenomenon. Somebody's taken the fun out of it.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I think what Dexter must mean about S&W's sex scenes is that they're devoid of purple prose and extravagant metaphors. They'd never have qualified for that bad-sex award that someone gives out every year. Characters actually smile before they lift their nighdresses over their heads.

Most sex happens at night, right? Well, the sun never sets on the British Empire, so the English never get to go to bed.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I don't know much about social mores around the time of Fanny Hill. I'd have had no idea whether they were dirty little secrets or something more like quotidian naturalism.

But yes, I suppose the English got Victorian sometime during the reign of Victoria. I wonder why --- and I'm sure volumes have been written on this question.

January 22, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The rise of the middle class, Peter.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, why do we-- I mean, those middle classes hate sex when the grubby proles and the degenerate rich don't?

January 22, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

"So, why do we-- I mean, those middle classes hate sex when the grubby proles and the degenerate rich don't?"

--It's an interesting question. England's best selling newspaper, Rupert Murdoch's Sun, has a naked woman on page 3 and the bawdy has always been a feature of life there (and across the pond come to that) but people who read the Sun are seen as filthy degenerates whereas people who read Fanny Hill or Lady Chatterly arent.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I guess literary sex, like literary fiction, is superior to the grubby genre variety. And I think Lady Chatterly was considered degenerate, at least here in America.

The most devastating critique I've read of Lady Chatterly is that it's boring.

January 22, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, FANNY HILL isn't literature. It's more the sort of thing the Marquis de Sade wrote without the sadism. And LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER was the most disappointing (!) book I ever read. All that hype, and only one brief incident in the whole blasted book.
As for the influence of the bourgeoisie in the Victorian age: well, they were "straight-laced" and church-going people who repressed their sexual desires except for their secret vices. All you have to do is look at those old photographs, and you know what they were like. Nobody ever smiled in those pictures.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, they had to sit still because of the long exposure times of the photography of the day. Maybe all that sitting led to a build-up of forbidden thoughts. They didn't get to dissipate their physical desire in healthy exercise.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I believe Dexter means serenity on the part of the writer, not the characters.

Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction for the new editions too. The Laughing Policeman, I believe. I don't know exactly why he was tapped, but it's a nice intro.

January 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Maybe he means serenity on the part of the reader. Sex scenes are indeed a small part of S&J's fiction. More to the point, they are handled without the heavy breathing that many of us are used to.

The Laughing Policeman is the one book of the first five that I have read in an edition other than the recent one. That means I missed Franzen's introduction. What does he heve to say?

The publishers seemed to have ranged beyond the obvious in their choice of authors to write the introductions. Henning Mankell was an obvious selection and a highly suitable one. Jo Nesbo, another Nordic crime writer, was no surprise. But Dexter writes that he was surprised to be asked because, he says, he had never read Sjowall and Wahloo before. The publishers appear to have gone out of their way to get an unusual take or two on the series.

January 22, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I certainly agree with paragraph four of the posted blog.

I haven't yet read "The Fire Engine that Disappeared," but will mot it to the top o the TBR list. It sounds like a good read.

Maybe the publishers of the Sjowall and Wahloo series used unusual (to the Scandinavian crime circles) authors to write the introductions to appeal to new audiences, to readers of those authors, to broaden the sales and readership.

Also, on the British--who ever had public scandals like they have with politicians, MP members, top heads of state? I remember movies even made about some of the scandals, involving affairs, spies, the stuff of top mystery novels--but they actually did it! No one does scandals like the British! (Or used to, anyway)

January 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy: I suspect you're right that the publishers chose authors who might appeal to audiences unfamiliar with the books. I also suspect another reason for having Henning Mankell introduce the first novel, Roseanna. In addition to being a successful, widely crime author in his own right, he represents a kind of middle generation of Swedish crime writers between Sjowall and Wahloo, whom he regarded as an inspiration, and somewhat younger authors such as Hakan Nesser, who regard Mankell the same way.

Speaking of British scandals, you might enjoy a post I put up about a year ago called "Ten lays that shook the world."

January 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"They'll do anything to avoid the nasty even inventing five day long cricket matches."

Adrian

Well, they do stop playing when the sun goes down, and they take a break for "tea."

January 23, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Interesting and educational post, which ended up on quite some tangents.

I never knew about Katherine O'Shea, and her being the fall gal for the entire history of Ireland for more than 100 years! Quite a load on the shoulders of one woman!

Iris Robinson--the word "hypocrite" doesn't even begin to cover her actions and political rhetoric.

2002! Yes, murders, mayhem and mystery fiction must have occurred due to the Angelican Church not lifting its ban on remarriage for divorced people, if their exes were living(!)

And, yes, Italy has its scandals, too, without a doubt--Berlucsoni's are enough for thousands of pages of tabloid fodder.

But the British scandals are what I remember, and the stuff of many movies and PBS specials.

Interesting how much one learns from these posts.

January 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll see that Katherine O'Shea was new to me, too, so I know these posts can be educational.

January 23, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

And Kitty is apparently a derogatory word, so I'm sticking to Katherine O'Shea or Katie O'Shea, which she was also called.

So in the scheme of history, wonder if she is seen as akin to Cleopatra? Helen of Troy?

January 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think someone mentioned in a comment on the original post that her name also adorns a chain of "Irish" pubs.

January 23, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adran,

re "I lived over there for six years but I still dont know how they keep producing one generation after another."

They close their eyes and think of England.

Remember the popular 1970s West End play, "No Sex, Please, We're British"?

We must have lived there at quite different times. I lived in so. England (mostly London) between 1975-77; things were pretty lively, as I recall. Of course, it could be my rose-colored glasses.

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

What C. Dexter calls "serene simplicity" I think I tend to see as "matter-of-fact."

Scandinavians may not be the most humorous ethnic group and at times have been thought to be pretty dumb ("squareheads"). Maybe that's one reason why written sex may seem a bit prosaic in some Scandinavian crime fiction? Not enough imgination?! We tend to take things as they come, so to speak.

I'm reminded of Salvo Montalbano's girl pal, Ingrid Sjöström who has no qualms telling Salvo she's too tired to go home, can she spend the night?, and begins undressing in front of him and enjoys poking gentle fun at Salvo -- an Italian, supposedly a member of one of the sexier ethnic groups -- when he gets in a dither about it.

Greta Garbo used to wander around her Hollywood garden in an un-sashed kimono with nothing on underneath it. And I have to remind myself not to do the same--and I ain't no Greta Garbo!

Speaking of sex and the writing about it... I like how John Lawton calls a spade a spade, or in this instance, a fuck a fuck. If the characters are just having sex, they're "fucking." I always roll my eyes when I read some line about two virtual strangers who've hooked up for the night and when the sex begins, the author calls it "making love."

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, in re Scandi sex, first, I don't what to generalize based on a small sample, but matter-of-fact, sane, and serene are part of same general attitude that we readers have toward Sjowall and Wahloo's sex scenes. And that's fine, as long as one does not equate matter-of-fact with boring.

Camilleri's novels and the television series based on them have given Salvo and Ingrid some wonderful scenes that take humorous advantage of the characters' differing sexual mores.

January 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"They close their eyes and think of England."

I dunno, some public figure, maybe an actor or a rock star or an author, once said he fancied Margaret Thatcher.

January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Whoops. Apologies to Adrian McK for misspelling your name...

January 25, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Am reading now the book featured at this post, "The Fire Engine that Disappeared," and must say, going back to the "good writing" discussion(s), this book simply purrs.

I was reading something else and switched to this, and was pulled right into the characters and plot.

I must ask: How can mystery readers bypass the S&W series to read meaningless, fast-paced books with no substance to them?
(I do read thrillers, too; some are quite good.)

There is so much to say about this series, and this book, in particular.

February 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll say it again: S&W are my big discoveries of the past few years. As to why readers bypass the series, the cream does not always rise to the top.

February 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I just saw a friend who reads mysteries all of the time, all different genres, countries, styles.

She, to my surprise, has not read S&J, although she would like them.

I think I'll find a used copy of one and give it to her to try to get her reading this series.

It is not promoted here really, unless one reads good mystery critiques, blogs or columns online or in print media. But promoting S&J doesn't happen often where many readers would see this.

So I left Sicily abruptly, and dropped in on Stockholm and Malmo, enjoying every page.

What good writers! And talking of brevity combined with excellent writing, this book is 212 pages--and says it all. (I hope it's used in curricula for writing or mystery writing courses.)

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I had not read Sjowall and Wahloo until relatively recently, si I'm not shocked that your friend has not read them. But she should.

Modern classics often get lost in the rush to embrace the new, and that effect may be exacerbated now, as the book industry seems to place greater and greater emphasis on fewer and fewer books. But that's where I think blogs can do some good. They can keep older books in the public eye.

Of course, Showall and Wahloo were not exactly neglected. There is that wonderful recent edition of the Martin Beck series that I keep mentioning.

February 21, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, of course, the series. I am reading this book from the recent series.

And now that I'm almost finished, I will try to read my as yet unread six books in this series, so I can read the introductions. I may even go back and find the new editions of the ones I've read so I can read the introductions.

If I resort to purchases, true, I can loan them to friends, a still great aspect of paper books.

Some readers just aren't online, don't read blogs and reviews, so they don't see the mentions of older classics.

Anyway, this book is near perfection; the plotting and story line are excellent. There's enough thinking by Beck and other police inspectors to add that aspect, without bogging it down. There is not on-page or gratuitous violence (cheers!).

And political points are made without an entire Op-Ed piece smack-dab in the middle of the chapters.

A study in good writing.

This will be a hard book to end. But I must return to Sicily and then visit Ireland, Spain or India--or find another book in this series right away!

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If I resort to purchases, true, I can loan them to friends, a still great aspect of paper books.

There are so many reasons not to like "e-books"! And so many reasons to like Sjowall and Wahloo that when I found one thing in my recent burst of reading their work that they did not do so well, I was so surprised that I made it the subject of a post.

February 21, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I just finished this book, and thought that the last 10 pages aren't as perfectly done as the rest of it.

I ended the book with questions about who's behind the whole illegal operation and the murders, and shock at the brutality at the end.

But all in all, the books are fine, and I must turn to other books.

On e-books, someone told me that she finds using a Kindle easier due to vision problems; one can read narrow columns than in a regular book.

So, I guess for this type of problem, it's helpful. But I'll remain a Luddite on this issue, as long as paper books are published.

February 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just finished this book, and thought that the last 10 pages aren't as perfectly done as the rest of it.

I haven't finished the book; I took a break from Sjowall and Wahloo jag.

But I'll remain a Luddite on this issue, as long as paper books are published.

So will I. I wonder if anyone will turn Luddite in the words stricter, original sense -- that is, will try to destroy the technology rather than merely oppose it. Now, there's a science-fiction premise for you.

February 22, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

When you finish this book, would like to hear (or read) what you think of the ending.

I bet there are publishing company or printers' staff who'd like to carry out Luddite actions; their jobs are at stake--or many are at stake.

Crime Scraps reviewed "The Abominable Snowman," and mentioned "Murder at the Savoy," and they both sound intriguing to me.

But I'll have to wait as I do want to read other books, too, in the near future. Also, my productivity rate goes down when I have one of the books in this series, so I have to take a break.

I still find it so hard to believe some mystery-reader friends of mine haven't read Sjowall/Wahloo.

I will aim to remedy that ASAP.

February 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall try to remember to report back on the ending. I think the other S&W title is The Abominable Man, though -- no snow.

February 23, 2011  

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