Book review: The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

27 02 2018

Though Maj Sjöwall and the late Per Wahlöö both also wrote novels individually, this Swedish duo is best know as the authors of the ten-volume ‘Martin Beck’ series, a set of police procedurals charting crime and societal change across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. I’ve previously reviewed the first two books in the series, Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.

ManOnTheBalcony

The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen, 1967, translated by Alan Blair) details the investigation of a sequence of shocking fatal attacks on preteen girls by an unknown assailant, in public parks across Stockholm. With no reliable witnesses (the only people thought to have seen the attacker are a mugger and a three-year-old boy), and with two fatalities only days apart, the police are under extreme pressure to solve a series of crimes almost completely devoid of useful clues. The taciturn Beck (whom I’ve discovered, three books in, that I visualise as actor Martin Clunes—perhaps it’s a first-name thing) leads an investigation which, by necessity, repeatedly clutches at straws and repeatedly ends up down blind alleys but which, finally, starts to crystallise into a case with one suspect …

The Beck novels have a distinct flavour of ‘time capsule’ about them: they’re very plainly not of the modern world of smartphones, the internet, and magically-powerful forensic analysis. This means they have a particular charm which more recent procedurals, seeking to capture our present day, lack; yet the Beck novels’ setting was the present day of its time, the background issues—mismanaged urbanisation, societal unrest, the uptake in hallucinogenic substances etc—were very much concerns of the time. And insofar as human nature seems to necessitate never properly solving any of its problems, but merely compounding them in unexpected ways, it’s fair to say that the society of these novels (and that society is a reasonably subtle but nonetheless enduring focus of the series) is distinctly recognisable to the modern-day reader, for all that it differs in some details.

The above may make The Man on the Balcony sound dry and sombre, and yet it’s not. It’s low-key, certainly, expressed in clipped, efficient prose that lends the story immediacy. The characterisation is effective but largely undemonstrative; there are no larger-than-life crises designed to throw characters into an emotional or physical maelstrom, merely the plodding routine of the long and poorly-focussed search for the killer, punctuated by fresh clues, fresh red herrings, and fresh attacks. The book doesn’t even aim at catharsis, as if acknowledging that the ultimate result of all of this can never be a resolution, merely an end of sorts. It’s all surprisingly immersive, and quietly intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Sjöwall & Wahlöö, you should.

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