Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Martin Beck, #2)The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"There was something fundamentally wrong with all this. Something was quite definitely not as it should be. What it was he did not know."

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966) is chronologically the second book in the acclaimed "Martin Beck" series of Swedish police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Yet for some reason the Vintage Crime series by Random House lists it as the third installment and thus I have read it after the outstanding Roseanna and very good The Man on the Balcony .

This is not a typical entry in this very Scandinavian series: the major part of the story happens in Budapest, the capital of Hungary, at that time a country behind the Iron Curtain. It all begins when Inspector Martin Beck, who heads the Stockholm homicide division, leaves for family vacations on a small island in the Stockholm archipelago. Not even 24 hours into his vacations Beck is recalled to work by his boss: the Foreign Office needs someone experienced, discreet, and trusted to investigate the disappearance of a well-known Swedish journalist in Hungary. The diplomats want to prevent the case from developing into a new Wallenberg affair. Beck goes to Budapest where he retraces the steps of the vanished Alf Matsson; he ends up staying in the same hotel and even sleeping in the same bed. Local police first treat him with distrust but eventually Beck establishes a friendly working relationship with Szluka, a Hungarian police inspector. Scarcely any progress is made for several days other than Martin Beck's developing a hunch - quoted in the epigraph - about "something fundamentally wrong" with the case. There is a rare violent sequence - with Beck almost getting killed - and we also have an embarrassing quasi-sex scene in the novel. The action returns to Sweden, where patrolmen Kristiansson and Kvant grace the plot with their presence, and even in some way contribute to solving the case.

I had spent almost half my life behind the Iron Curtain (the circumstances in Poland were quite similar to those in Hungary) and I can vouch that the realities of life in a so-called Communist country are well captured; I also appreciate that the authors refrain from cheap political propaganda in either direction.

Although I am not much into the mystery aspect in crime novels I have to admit that from the "mystery point of view" the authors created a top-notch plot, with a clever and surprising ending. As much as I dislike plot twists, the one here is unexpected yet logical. Alas, there is not much of what I usually look for in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's novels - sharp societal observations and analyses.

Not exactly my kind of book, but I recommend it: a purely plot-driven novel, with a good sense of place and somewhat realistically drawn characters.

Three stars.

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