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.


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.


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.

Book review: Roseanna, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

28 01 2017

The series of ten ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals written, in the sixties and seventies, by Swedish duo Sjöwall and (the late) Wahlöö is their most widely-known and influential creation; these works have a reputation as the wellspring from which every subsequent Scandinavian crime novel (and many a non-Scandinavian one also) has either directly or indirectly drawn inspiration. They’ve also given rise to an enviable total of 46 movies, with the role of Beck taken by actors including Derek Jacobi and Walter Matthau.

The books are known for their careful construction, for their deliberate social realism, and for the quantity of preparation with which the series was planned: published one per year from 1965, each novel progresses the circumstances of Beck and those around him by one year, so the series maps out—in background—a decade of social development in Sweden.

Both Sjöwall and Wahlöö also wrote separately (indeed, I think Sjöwall is still active as a writer, as well as a translator), though little of their individual output has seen English translation. There are a few Wahlöö titles in English (I’ve reviewed Murder on the Thirty-First Floor here), but I’m not aware of any of Sjöwall’s work (including Danish Incident, coauthored with Bjarne Nielsen, and The Woman Who Resembled Greta Garbo, coauthored with Tomas Ross) that has yet appeared in English.


Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965, translated by Lois Roth) is the first book in the Martin Beck series. It opens with the discovery, during dredging of the Göta Canal at Borenshult in the summer of 1964, of the waterlogged, unclothed body of a young woman, dead some two or three days. The local police in Motala open an investigation into the woman’s death, but after two weeks no headway has been made by Gunnar Ahlberg and his associates, and the assistance of the Stockholm homicide bureau is sought. When Detective Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues Kollberg and Mellander arrive on the scene, the woman’s identity remains unknown; there are no suspects; there are no clues as to any motive for her death; all that is known, beyond the contents of her last meal and the approximate time of death, is that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled. The practical, dyspeptic Beck sets about attempting to elucidate further information about a murder for which, it seems, no clues exist. Very gradually, during the next half year, the crime emerges from a fog of near-total uncertainty.

The pacing of this crime novel is, by more modern standards, somewhat slow, but this shouldn’t be seen as a negative: it allows space for the calm, undemonstrative characterisation to take hold as the story unfolds. And though the novel does not conceal the sense of often-directionless ennui that must accompany a six-month-long investigation, it also provides definite flashes of humour and of heightening tension along the way. The prose has the same sense of quietly ironic detachment as is a feature of Wahlöö’s Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, though Roseanna feels richer, busier, more sharply defined by place (because it is, after all, a novel inhabiting a specified and recognisable set of localities within Sweden rather than within an effectively-allegorical futuristic mid-European state). And the pacing and plotting also make plain, by comparison with a society now half a century newer, just how much difference is made by the technological furniture of the time. This is an investigation conducted by typewriter and mail delivery, at a time before the fax machine, a time when telephones were inevitably-deskbound devices for the sole purpose of verbal communication. (The past is a different country, etc.)

This is an effective, ingenious, and detailed novel; it’ll be interesting to see how its nine successors compare with it.

Book review(s): two Swedish murder mysteries

22 08 2016

Another doubled-up book review. There’s not really a connection of any kind between these two books, other than that they’re by two authors who remain influential and who were, in their respective times, at the forefront of the Swedish crime fiction scene.

Per Wahlöö (d. 1975) wrote a series of standalone crime novels, but is probably best known as the co-author (with his partner Maj Sjöwall) of the Martin Beck series of mysteries. Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (Mord på 31:a våningen, 1964, translated by Sarah Death) is one of his standalones.


Inspector Jensen is directed to investigate an anonymous bomb threat made against the staff of a large publishing company by, it is presumed, a disgruntled former employee. Jensen is told by his superintendent that the investigation must be discreet, thorough, and quick, and the Inspector loses no time in getting to work on the case. But everyone he questions on the matter appears to have something to hide, especially the company’s senior employees.

This book is written in a severe, spare style which threatens to date it. Another aspect that sets it apart from the other Swedish crime novels I’ve read recently is its setting: the story unfolds within a large city that is never identified, in an unnamed country, at some point within (as it was then) the near future. It is, thus, in a sense, a work of science fiction, and indeed there are parallels with some genre works: not, especially, with Asimov’s Lije Baley / R Daneel Olivaw novels (except, I suppose, in the sheer lack of ornamentation to the writing), nor with Larry Niven’s ‘Gil Hamilton’ stories, but quite strongly with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as with lit-dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s particularly redonent of the Truffaut film of Fahrenheit 451, with its twin themes of (a) societal homogenisation through vapid entertainment and (b) literature as danger.

The prose’s flatness has a distancing effect, and Jensen is so sketchily drawn as not to engage the reader’s empathy to any significant extent. Furthermore, many of the dialogues which unfold during the investigation are quite polemical, to the extent that it does become difficult, in places, to view the work as a genuine mystery story. Nonetheless, it does hang together, and it reaches its destination in good order. I suppose its impact rests, ultimately, on the extent to which the reader is prepared to countenance a future in which one print / media company has such an overwhelming grip on the dissemination of information as to exert effectively complete control over the society in which it is embedded …


If Murder on the Thirty-First Floor sketches a possible future, The Troubled Man (Den orolige mannen, 2009, translated by Laurie Thompson) details a plausible past.

Henning Mankell (d. 2015) was a prolific writer of crime fiction, children’s novels, plays and screenplays, best known for the series of crime novels featuring Kurt Wallander, a dour and somewhat reclusive detective. Like the Marxist Wahlöö, Mankell’s political beliefs were substantially towards the left, and he took a keen interest in world affairs, actively supporting numerous charities involved in Africa (especially Mozambique); he was also aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 when it was boarded by Israeli military forces. With this personal background, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that The Troubled Man (in which Wallander seeks to solve the disappearance of his daughter Linda’s father-in-law Håkan von Enke, a retired submarine commander who played an active role, in 1982, in the attempted interception of a Soviet submarine in Swedish territorial waters) does carry something of a political flavour. But there’s such a wealth of backstory, and of character interplay, that this story of the aging detective is consistently engaging and well-realised, with episodes of genuine pathos. It’s probably not, though, the ideal book from which to start exploring the Wallander sequence, because it’s set so late in his career.

The story is a complex one, in which Mankell explores not just Håkan’s disappearance but that of Håkan’s wife Louise, as well as Wallander’s failing health, Sweden’s political and social turmoil following the (still unsolved) assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, and the geopolitical difficulties faced by a wealthy country trying to walk a line of ostensible neutrality. Von Enke’s background as a submariner is dealt with in what seems to be very credible detail, and the recurrence of what appear to be minor characters from some of the much earlier Wallander novels gives the book an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ flavour. It’s not a quick read—it certainly takes its time to get to the source of the crime—but it holds together well and it breathes a lot of life into its characters (even the dead ones). Isn’t that what one looks for in crime fiction?