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the man who went up in smoke

2 april 2010

I don't know why it took me so long to read the crime novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They were popular when I started to read mysteries in the late 1960s and early 1970s; I remember my mother reading them then. Of course, though I was allowed to read her Ellery Queens, Nero Wolfes, and Charlie Chans, I may have been shielded from the Martin Becks by my mom's sense of their very advanced vocabulary and decidedly adult themes.

In more recent years, I neglected Martin Beck because I figured the books would be old-fashioned, maybe even a little soft-boiled. A recent fine essay on Scandinavian crime fiction by Laura Miller refers to Sjöwall and Wahlöö as nearly antediluvian. I was surprised to learn recently that Maj Sjöwall is still alive and writing. She seems like a figure from the prehistory of the detective novel. (Since Wahlöö, her husband, died in 1975, there have been no new Martin Beck novels.)

But the Martin Becks have held up extremely well. Their flavor is quite vigorous – in many ways, despite the extravagant gore that splashes the pages of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, Sjöwall and Wahlöö's books are even more bracingly nasty.

As Miller points out, Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote procedurals, and they wrote very unromantic ones. Martin Beck and his fellow nationally-active detectives sift through some very dry material indeed in the course of hunting down some very miserable Swedish murderers. In the excellent Roseanna, the first of the series, the killer turns out to have some serial-sadist qualities, but he's a feverish, haunted guy, not like the comic-book destroyers who populate Larsson's books. And he's nondescript, his crimes mundane: for months, Beck and his men don't even know that the victim's name is Roseanna, let alone where her killer may be hiding.

In The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, Beck doesn't even know that there is a victim. All he has to go on is that a Swedish journalist has disappeared into the bright air of summertime Budapest. Fearing an international incident, the Swedish foreign office sends Beck to Hungary to trace the missing person.

The Man Who Went Up In Smoke proceeds to deliver some desultory sleuthing, involving various wild geese and red herrings, set in a meticulously rendered Cold War Budapest. (Having a walking-tourist's familiarity with Budapest, I can vouch for the accuracy of the geography.) The novel's very drabness is essential to its high quality. It is, in some respects, the story of an undercover secret agent behind the Iron Curtain. But it's as far from Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming as one can imagine. It's not even the lower-key John LeCarre type of flat-surfaced spy novel; it's the story of a policeman looking for someone who might not be there against a backdrop of people trying to live day-to-day with what minor gusto they can summon up in a totalitarian state.

When the murderer is finally apprehended, Kollberg (if possible the only detective in Sweden more depressed than Martin Beck) has this to say about the chain of contingencies that has led to his arrest:

"If he'd known a little more about Matsson, and gone to the trouble of looking to see what was in the bag, and left the plane in Copenhagen instead of taking the risk of rubbing things out in his passport . . ."

He left the sentence unfinished. Martin Beck looked at him sideways.

"Then what? Do you mean he might have got away with it?"

"No," said Kollberg. "Of course not." (150)
And Kollberg doesn't mean it. The world of Sjöwall and Wahlöö is neither magical nor deterministic. Small accidents happen, and the large probabilities come to pass in contingent ways. But we are never exempt from experiencing those contingencies as they happen.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke. [Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966.] Trans. Joan Tate. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1976.