Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A recent review by José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot blog of ‘Cop Killer’, the ninth book in the Martin Beck series written by Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö prompted me to start the first book in the series. Published in 1965, Roseanna influenced a generation of crime writers and the paperback copy I bought featured an introduction by Henning Mankell who recalled the impact of reading it at the time.

Roseanna is the story of a murdered girl fished out of the Göta canal in the Swedish city of Motala. Detective Inspector Martin Beck is called from Stockholm to assist with the murder investigation but is hampered by difficulties in identifying the victim. The case moves at a snails pace as first the detective tries to identify the girl and then discover her murderer. The victim has been sexually assaulted and strangled and through painstaking police work the culprit brought to justice.

I found the book an engrossing read and was struck by how influential the writing must have been on a generation of Scandinavian crime writers. It’s a police procedural and parts of the investigation reminded me of the books of George Simenon’s Maigret where a dogged persistence in the pursuit of justice overcomes numerous obstacles. The character of Martin Beck cuts a figure similar to Maigret, although he is far gloomier and troubled by various illnesses and a depressing home life. Minutiae of both the investigation and domestic details are narrated in a neutral non-descriptive tone, and results in a picture of Swedish society in the mid sixties gradually taking shape.

In many respects the period in which the book was set dictates the pace of the narrative. In a time before the internet or fax machines, information takes days to be transmitted across continents and the investigation creaks on at painfully slow rate. But the method of the murder could be right of an episode of ‘The Killing’ such is the timeless nature of violence against women. I was impressed by how the character of the victim, Roseanna McGraw, comes clearly through the narrative via transcripts of interviews and how non-judgemental the investigation is involving a victim who might be considered promiscuous in Swedish society at that time.

An excellent book and luckily I have another nine in the series to read.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Reactions to Reading, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reviewing the Evidence.

25 thoughts on “Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

  1. Very nice review, Sarah. I thought this book excellent,too, and have very much enjoyed the rest of the series. (For some reason I did not review this one, but my reviews of the rest are at Euro Crime – I keep meaning to make a single post of them now they’re all out, but never get around to it.)

    Some people say that Sjowall and Wahloo were influenced by Ed McBain, as he started the 87th Precinct series a bit before this. However, Maj S has said in recent-ish interviews that she and Wahloo had not heard of McBain’s books when they started writing this series. Someone sent her one of them (in English) as that person had noticed the similarities, and Sjowall was so struck by the book that she persuaded her publisher to let her translate it into Swedish. So I think it can be said that the two originators of the “modern police procedural” started independently. Though as you point out, if you keep going back, everything has its predecessors and influences! I think the essential difference in the McBain and Sjowall/Wahloo books is the ensemble nature of the police investigation – S/W were keen to show that crimes were not solved by one clever man but by a team effort. Mankell wanted to do the same in his Wallander books (show crimes are solved by teamwork), but bring into the mix issues such as immigration which did not exist in Sweden when S/W were writing.


    1. Thanks Maxine. You are much more knowledgeable about this area than me and I hadn’t picked up on the teamwork aspect but you are right. The role played by the policewoman in catching the culprit was an interesting plot strand and her character came across very well.

      I’m not that familiar with Ed McBain and have only read a couple of his books so I didn’t pick up on the similarity. I can well believe that the two series were being written simultaneously without directly influencing each other. We’ve seen it in modern CF with Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky creating similar characters virtually at the same time.


  2. Sorry, to be clear, I mean that the difference between McBain and S/W with what had been the case previously, is that they both emphasised the team effort rather than the individual brilliant detective, which had been a staple of the genre up to that point.


  3. Keishon

    I must read this! I did start it but like you described above, the case goes at a painstakingly slow pace and I have to be in the mood for that. I’ve heard so much about them that I will make sure to read this one this year. Interesting McBain discussion / comparison with Maxine, as I love McBain and just reviewed another book by him today. My plan is to read as many as I can and they do read really well today. Of course I’ve liked some more than others but so far I am enjoying them.


  4. FleurFisher

    Thank you for reminding me of this series. I’ve read this one and the next and I need to pick up book three. I loved the clarity and objectivity, the deductive logic (there’s a lovely exposition in the next book) and like you I saw the influence of the past and the foreshadowing of the future.


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  7. kathy d.

    Excellent book. The only problem with reading Sjowall/Wahloo’s books is that each time one reads one, fewer are left, like eating a wonderful dessert. I am doling them out slowly, so I can savor each one; then I hope to reread them.
    The Laughing Policeman and The Fire Engine that Disappeared are very good. The Locked Room has two separate plots — or do they interlink? The solution to the locked room is ingenious. I can imagine the authors trying out various scenarios for days.


    1. I have book 3 in this excellent series to read and I like you am now progressing slowly to enjoy the reading experience. I particularly liked the leisurely pace of this one.


  8. Pingback: Sjöwall and Wahlöö: The Fire Engine that Disappeared | Past Offences

  9. Pingback: Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

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  12. Pingback: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö | Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog

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