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Writing in the 1960s and 70s, Sjöwall and Wahlöö produced a series of ten novels featuring Inspector Martin Beck of the Swedish National Police. Unlike the contrived and stylized drawing-room mysteries of Agatha Christie and her many imitators, the Swedish duo never appeared to be in the business of entertainment alone, though their work is unquestionably entertaining: they used their genre as a mirror on society with all its flaws, much as Henning Mankell (in Sweden) and Jo Nesbö (in Norway) have done so ably in later decades. And Martin Beck, like Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Nesbö’s Harry Hole after them, is a deeply flawed human being. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were the originators of Scandinavian noir.
The Man Who Went Up In Smoke is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s second Martin Beck novel. I found it to be a much more accomplished effort than the first book in the series, Roseanna, in which the authors went to extraordinary lengths to communicate the tedium and wasted effort of police work and succeeded in becoming boring at times in the process. Set largely in Budapest, where Martin Beck has been sent to track down a Swedish reporter who disappeared there, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke is a complex, fast-moving, and suspenseful tale that will keep a reader guessing until the end (as it did Martin Beck).
"The Man Who Went Up In Smoke" is the second book by Sjowall and Wahoo and starts as a missing person case that requires Martin Beck to travel to Soviet-period Budapest. The on-site investigation takes Beck on a real tour of the Hungarian capital, which was in very different physical condition at the time (still heavily damaged from WWII and the 1956 uprising), but quite recognizable to anyone who has been there recently. Beck's ponderings and wanderings are intriguing. His interactions with the locals are full of quiet menace and ambiguity.
This is a terrific read.
Mr. Beck starts out on his vacation and the authors permit him a short idyll on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago without a telephone where water has to be delivered regularly. It lasts barely more than a day. The water delivery person informs him he needs to make a phone call, and when it turns out the call is to the Foreign Office, and they want him to investigate the apparent disappearance of a journalist on assignment in Hungary, he doesn't have what it takes to refuse. At first this seems odd to the reader but gradually we come to realize he really can't refuse -- he's only mid career and he's dedicated to his job even when he says he hates it (like many people).
Those unfamiliar with Sweden of the time (or Europe) need to know that the action takes place in 1967. The Cold War was on, and Hungary was behind the "Iron Curtain" that had "descended across Europe" in Winston Churchill's famous speech. While Americans were restricted from travelling among the Soviet satellite states, Sweden was proudly "unaligned", although it risked almost as much as the US did from Soviet expansion, and therefore Swedes could travel freely to the Eastern Bloc to take advantage of the milder weather there as well as bargain prices for practically everything. In fact, as recently from the time of the action as 1956, Soviet tanks had rumbled into Hungary and put down a rebellion; many of the survivors of the rebels left, found asylum in the United States, and settled in my birthplace, New Brunswick, NJ. So, I am well aware of how good Hungarian food is!
Martin Beck gets on a plane and flies to Budapest, checks into his hotel, and has dinner -- he's discovered Hungarian food right on Day One. The city is strung out along the Danube and his hotel is on the waterfront. It's a beautiful historic city and the weather is sunny and nice. The geographical details are described as if the authors had been there; yet Beck is not diverted from his investigation. He proceeds to follow the tracks of his quarry and is unable to find any clues. It's about halfway through the book that I figured out there was no evidence the journalist was ever actually in Budapest and imagined he might still be in Stockholm. Beck is attacked by a man he'd interviewed while looking for the missing man and the Hungarian police decide he's really on the level and start helping. It is revealed that the missing man has been trading in drugs.
Reading this, we conclude there was a drug deal gone bad and the missing man has been killed and the body hidden. But, the ending is quite different, more satisfying than that. The exotic flavor of Sixties Budapest makes the book much less "Swedish" than the others in the series, but one of the most fun to read anyway. With less of a serious theme and more of a complex plot, but maintaining the characterization of Beck and his colleagues on the Swedish force, as well as introducing his contact in Budapest, Inspector Szluka, it's a lively, relatively light read.
However, like the multi-layered cakes Hungarians make, it's rich in fat and calories. You can get your teeth into it.
In it Detective Beck interrupts his summer vacation to travel from Stockholm to Budapest to investigate the seeming disappearance there of a Swedish journalist. While the plot is not that intriguing, the policemen are -- Swedes and Hungarians alike. They share a stocism, a sardonic Weltanschauung, and unresolved marital problems. As a result, they come off as human beings at work instead of formulaic heroic crime-fighters.
As when Beck's colleague Kollberg is receiving an oral report on the apprehension of two suspects from an unimaginative provinical Swedish cop, Backlund, who states that they "`were taken to police headquarters...by Patrolmen Kristiansson and Kvant. Both men were under the influence of alcohol.'"
"`Kristiansson and Kvant?'"
"Backlund gave Kolberg a look of reproach and went on..."
Subtle humor, Swedish humor perhaps, which peppers the gritty novel at unexpected moments.
But most alluring is the Cold War-era view of Europe, the deliberate pacing, and the crisp prose as translated by Joan Tate. The result is soothing, reminding me of Simenon's Maigret novels. Like Maigret, Beck drinks a lot. Also like Maigret, he has a long-suffering wife -- though Beck's does not suffer silently as does Madame Maigret.
From 1965 to 1975 Sjöwall and Wahlöö published 10 Martin Beck mysteries, the most noted being "The Laughing Policeman," made into a 1973 movie, set in San Francisco in lieu of the novel's Stockholm, with Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern.
I liked this one in particular. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is about a Swedish magazine writer who disappears in Hungary. Martin Beck is sent to investigate and is neither equipped with intros to the Hungarian police nor with speaking Hungarian. Nevertheless, he arrives, meets collaborators and various Hungarians and proceeds to solve what happened to the writer.
It is fabulously plotted, and I loved the surprise ending. I saw all the clues but did not put it together myself.
The Hungarian policeman who gets involved is special and quite humorous. All over a wonderful book. Very nice translation.
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