Book review: The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

25 06 2017

The ‘Martin Beck’ series of police procedurals, written across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies by Swedish ex-journalists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (the latter of whom died shortly after publication of the series’ final instalment The Terrorists), have exerted a major influence on the subgenre of Scandinavian crime fiction—Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, written with a similarly laconic and closely-focussed style, can be reductively viewed as Beck’s direct descendant—and have earned a substantial following elsewhere. Forty to fifty years on, the books are now somewhat dated (which isn’t necessarily a failing: they’re very much a product of their times, and the times have moved on), but it’d be wrong to view them as merely historical documents: those I’ve read are genuinely, if quietly, intriguing, and the crimes remain topical even if the methods of investigation and communication now appear quite old-fashioned. I’ve previously reviewed the first of the Beck novels, Roseanna, here.


The Man Who Went Up In Smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966, translated by Joan Tate) opens with the scene of a murder, but it’s not one with any direct connection to the mystery at the novel’s centre, which is the disappearance, in Budapest, of Swedish journalist Alf Matsson. Concerned that Matsson’s employer is not above exploiting his disappearance as some kind of made-in-house scoop—an eventuality which, with its expected trappings of jingoism and paranoia, would have troubling implications for relations between Sweden and the countries of communist Eastern Europe—the Foreign Office asks the police to investigate, and the police, in turn, assign the task to Martin Beck, the day after he has embarked on a month-long vacation with his family on one of the islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Beck is free to refuse the assignment, but he takes it on. He’s never heard of the journalist and disapproves of the paper for which Matsson writes. The details surrounding Matsson’s disappearance are sparse, a situation that doesn’t change much with Beck’s relocation to Budapest, where he stays in the same hotel room into which the journalist had been booked, but had apparently not occupied for longer than about a half hour two weeks previously. Beck has Matsson’s passport, a few eyewitness accounts of questionable reliability from hotel workers and taxi drivers, and that’s about it. Even the woman on whom Matsson had apparently been planning to call—his romantic interest, Ari Bökk, a former East German athlete—turns out to be someone who claims no knowledge of the missing Swede. And yet, incrementally, a case emerges from the heat haze …

We’re given little direct access to Beck’s thoughts and feelings, except as they impinge upon his investigation, and all of the novel’s other participants are viewed entirely through his eyes. Despite this, Beck, his colleagues Kollberg and Melander, Major Szluka of the Budapest police force, and a swathe of witnesses and suspects are clearly, almost intimately drawn before the reader’s eyes. The settings, too, are described with often-affectionate detail, and help to place the reader in the midst of the action.

One of the things that’s most striking about Beck’s characterisation is that, in this book, he eats well. This is notable chiefly because in the book’s predecessor, Roseanna, he’s starkly dyspeptic, as is the protagonist Inspector Jensen in Wahlöö’s solo crime-fiction effort Murder on the Thirty-first Floor (published in the same year, 1966, as The Man Who Went Up In Smoke and similarly concerned with the intersection between journalism and crime). That two of the three books I’ve read for which Wahlöö was an author, all of them ostensibly written within a two-year timespan, have protagonists for whom digestion is an often-agonising ordeal has me wondering whether this is in some sense mirroring the then-current state of health of Wahlöö, who would die in 1975 from a disease, pancreatic cancer, for which digestive difficulties and loss of appetite are apparently frequent early symptoms. I mention this solely because Beck’s reported eating habits in Roseanna, and Jensen’s in Thirty-first floor, are so appalling that it is, at times, quite confronting despite the distance and emotionlessness of the tone with which they’re described. Whether the oncology stacks up, and whether there is any broader scope for the application of the reported ailments of fictional detectives as a diagnosis for the physical condition of their creators, I leave as an exercise for the interested reader.

With its internationality, intrigue, and subterfuge, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke invites comparison with the books and movies featuring James Bond; and indeed, the text deliberately references Bond in a couple of places. But it would be wrong to view TMWWUIS through the same prism as Fleming’s tales of high-vis spycraft: Beck’s a plodder, a rather taciturn (though generally polite) grump with no fighting skills to speak of, without any particular tickets on himself beyond a (sometimes wavering) belief that his work is important, and he gets results because of his persistence and his capacity to take pains with the details. The detection that solves the mystery at the core of TMWWUIS is quite marvellous, and I’m looking forward to what happens in the subsequent instalments.




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