Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Murder on the Thirty-first FloorMurder on the Thirty-first Floor by Per Wahlöö
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Per Wahlöö is one half of the Swedish mystery writing duo Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who - between 1965 and 1975 - wrote a great series of crime novels featuring inspector Martin Beck and detectives Lennart Kollberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, etc. The series contains some of the best police procedurals I have read in my life; I find "The Laughing Policeman" and "Roseanna" the most outstanding. In addition to highly realistic and captivating plots, the books present quite a critical view of the Swedish "welfare state" society.

Per Wahlöö's "Murder on the Thirty-First Floor" is not a part of the Martin Beck series. It is quite a unique crime novel: a dystopian police procedural. The action takes place in an unnamed country (Sweden could very well be the location) at some point in not a very distant future. The government is involved in a massive social engineering experiment: heavy censorship and restrictive social policies are used in the name of creating "social equality". The newspapers and magazines can print only positive news and stories, which make the readers feel good. The anti-alcohol policies are draconian; for example, the police can arrest people for getting drunk in their own homes.

The country has only one magazine publishing concern, a conglomerate that produces all 144 magazines available in the country. Chief Inspector Jensen is ordered by the Chief of Police to an emergency - the directors of the concern have received a letter with a bomb threat against their main building, which is the workplace for thousands of people. After supervising the evacuation, the Chief Inspector is given seven days to find the author of the threatening letter. The plot is quite straightforward, and I have not found it very interesting.

The most interesting parts are the Orwellian fragments like, for instance, "'True' reporting is not always the best! 'The truth' is a commodity which must be handled with utmost caution in modern journalism. You cannot be sure that everyone will tolerate it as well as you can." The higher a person is in the organizational hierarchy, the stupider he or she is. The publisher, who is at the very top of the concern, is a complete, utter idiot, the managing directors are all idiots, the lower-level directors are morons, etc. In addition, the secret of the thirty-first floor is plausible and compelling.

One thing I do not understand. Mr. Wahlöö as well as Ms. Sjöwall used to call themselves Marxists. Marxism (which I believe I know a bit as I grew up in its shadow) resulted in one of the most catastrophic social engineering experiments in human history. Yet the author criticizes a similar kind of social engineering to the one that Marxism led to. I do not get it.

Two and a half stars.

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