.............................................. ...............................................

CRIME FICTION:Sjöwall and Wahlöö: Marxism and crime fiction

Wahloo (1926-1975) & Sjowall (1935- ) in the 1960s

by Dave Riley

I've been meaning to write a little something -- and meaning to do that for some time -- on crime fiction by drawing on my delight in the Martin Beck novels written by the Swedish duo Per Fredrik Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall .

Today on television each week you can access the Scandinavian crime perspective through the excellent crime offerings of Unit One (a Danish crime drama) and Wallander ( developed from the novels of the Swede, Henning Mankell), both on SBS.

But Sjöwall and Wahlöö occupy a special place in crime fiction not only for their approach to plotting and character but they, more than any other novelists you can possibly find, were willing to market a shared CV that registered them as committed Marxists.

So when you read the Martin Beck series you may wonder: how do "committed Marxists" write crime fiction?

The irony is that Marxism and crime fiction aren't so much strange bedfellows as you'd initially expect:even if you go back to the recent noirish past, Dashiell Hammett (author of The Maltese Falcon)-- who the New York Times described as "the dean of the... 'hard boiled' school of detective fiction" -- was black listed as a loyal member of the US Communist Party.

The social matrix of the genre fascinated the Belgian Marxist economist Ernest Mandel who wrote a very good study on the phenomenon of crime fiction:Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story.

This little book is out of print, but there's excerpt on the web which charts Mandel's fascination:
Let me confess at the outset that I like to read crime stories. I used to think that they were simply escapist entertainment: when you read them, you don't think about anything else; when you finish one, you don't think about it again. But this little book is itself proof that this way of looking at it is at least incomplete. True enough, once you finish any particular crime novel, you stop being fascinated by it; but equally, I, for one, cannot help being fascinated by the enormous success of the crime story as a literary genre.

This is obviously a social phenomenon: millions of people in dozens of countries in all continents read the crime story. Not a few of their authors and quite a number of capitalist publishers have become millionaires by producing that peculiar commodity. They have guessed right about the needs it satisfies as a use-value--or to put it in current parlance, they have correctly gauged its demand curve. Why is this so? What is the origin of these needs? How have they changed over the years, and how are they related to the general structure of bourgeois society?

How do the laws of individual psychology intersect the great curves of social ideology and of social evolution as a whole?

Today, the politically committed crime novel is almost common. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski is a feminist warrior. Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins is a historical reflection of Afro American struggle under US capitalist conditions since World War II. And the new Scottish crime scene seems embedded in a new exploration of class -- albeit very Tartan Noirish . (And Alex Miller who writes here can tell you all about that -- from Ian Rankin to the massive longevity of Glasgow set TV cop show Taggart ).

Mandel also goes on to explore the context of the espionage genre especially the political oneupmanship that sponsors the work of writers like John le Carré.

I can't get enough of Mosley or Wahlöö and Sjöwall so I keep re-reading novels by these authors I've read before.

Ernest Mandel may have inquired: why?

I can't speak as broadly as Ernest Mandel aspired to. But just as I can read "committed Marxists" like Wahlöö and Sjöwall I can be overpowered by the political sweep offered in the works of James Ellroy despite the fact he is a right wing nutter and ex member of the US Nazi Party. (His novel American Tabloid -- is more or less focused on the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt of Cuba and it's a revetting exploration of the imperialist underbelly.)

So alignment per se isn't the core aspect. We don't -- at least I don't -- read crime fiction for the sake of political alignment. I don't know about you, but I read it for the journey and for the imaginative perspective grounded in real life possibilities.

This is why the Martin Beck novels written by Wahlöö and Sjöwall are so interesting (and why I find them enthralling). They aren't especially committed in a sort of engineered moral judgment way -- a manipulated or didactic advocacy embedded in the story line. Murder at the Savoy is their sharpest critique of capitalism but that's not because Beck is drawn as consciously anti-capitalist. He is just a hard working copper -- and a rather boring one at that: a Constable Plod.

So why did Wahlöö and Sjöwall bother with this tag of being "committed Marxists"? What's supposedly so "Marxist" about Martin Beck and his Swedish cop world and mundane police work? It's hardly a selling point at Dymocks is it or on Amazon?

Vampire Fiction. Science Fiction. Crime Fiction.... Marxist Fiction!

But when you read these novels -- now progressively being republished in a Crime Masterworks series by Orion -- you are offered what is a very conscious attempt to log the relationships between individuals under capitalism so that 'crime' is located as a direct product of that tense matrix. There's no registered good and there's no registered evil --despite the horrific nature of some of the crimes. It's as though the stories and their protagonists are not fictionalized at all. But this isn't a crude social realism (which after all the bluster wasn't so very realistic) at all.

Wahlöö and Sjöwall construct an oblique view of life under capitalism so that you are asked to consider what happens in the story not so much as products of imaginative literary devices, but as by products of the way we are all forced to live. Thats' the overwhelming tragedy. There but for the grace of...whatever, you become the who-done-it in a crime novel.

It tends to be humbling reading experience not because we are asked to believe in a collective human penchant for "evil" (that spares no one including we readers) but that criminal acts seem, all things considered, so often a good idea at the time.

So like some historical footnote the crime -- any crime -- is embedded in a much larger historical sweep which we are all blithely unaware of.

Like a twig on the shoulder of mighty stream a character in a Martin Beck novel murders someone else and Wahlöö and Sjöwall , very much in the third person singular, thereafter tells us the story.

I think that's very Marxist...

0 Com:

Post a Comment