Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.

Trying to pace my reading of this series is proving impossible and as each book drops through my letterbox, courtesy of AbeBooks, the temptation to start reading is too great. This week I succumbed to  The Man Who Went Up in Smoke , which moves the narrative from 1960s Sweden to the charms of Iron Curtain Budapest.

Stockholm detective, Martin Beck, is sent to Hungary on the trail of a missing journalist, Alf Matsson. Forced to abandon his family holiday, he slowly becomes convinced that the case is more than a reporter who has gone AWOL. He checks into the same hotel as the missing man and follows up a series of clues which brings him to the attention of the Hungarian police.

Only when an attempt is made on his life do the threads of the case begin to come together and the police forces of the two countries begin to work together. Back in Stockholm, the police team painstakingly follow-up leads until the solution to the problem is revealed.

The book was similar in pace and tone to the first in the series, Roseanna. However, while the subject matter of the first book was the sexual attacks taking place on women, in the second the writers highlight the underground drugs industry that allow narcotics into Sweden through the ‘soft’ route of Iron Curtain countries.

Written in 1966, the book foreshadows some of the issues later addressed in the writing of Henning Mankell and in TMWWUIS I could see the similarities between Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander, as Beck aimlessly wanders the Budapest streets looking for inspiration. But like Roseanna, it is a police procedural where painstaking sifting of evidence eventually solves the case.

The descriptions of Budapest behind the Iron Curtain were fascinating with a real sense of time lost. The relationship between Beck and his Hungarian counterpart was also excellent – as mutual suspicion gives way to grudging respect. Once back in Sweden, the book is on familiar territory as we see Beck and his even more downbeat colleague Kollberg, methodically sift through clues. The writing was, as usual, excellent and in this book I felt the light touch of the translator, Joan Tate, who provides such perfectly pared down prose.

Other reviews can be found at Euro Crime and Mysteries in Paradise.

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.