Monday, February 10, 2014

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Martin Beck #2)The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poor Martin Beck. He just can't catch a break. He has just started his month-long summer vacation with his family on a small island off the coast of Sweden when he receives a call to return to duty.

It seems that a Swedish journalist has gone missing in Hungary and Beck's superiors want him to go to Budapest to act as liaison to the investigation. He's told that he can refuse the assignment since he is technically on vacation. But, of course, he can't. Not really. So he packs his bag and heads off to Budapest.

These books were written in the 1960s and so we find a very different Eastern Europe described here to what we would read in a novel set in the present day. But Beck is struck with the beauty of Budapest and we learn a little bit about its history and the layout of the city.

Beck's investigation proceeds slowly at first, but then he meets his local counterpart and is very impressed with the organization and efficiency of the Budapest police. He finds that he is being followed by someone and at first suspects that it is the police, but finally learns that it is some associates of the journalist he is looking for. Indeed, the police save him from an attack by these associates.

He learns that the missing journalist is a misogynistic boor and bully and he is not much liked by anybody. In fact his disappearance is not a cause for sorrow for anyone, except perhaps his employer. Beck and the local police uncover the fact that the man had been involved in the trading of hashish from Turkey. Some of his associates would  smuggle the drugs from Turkey and the journalist would pick them up in Budapest or some other Eastern European city and then take them back to Sweden where he would sell them at great profit.

The mystery is that none of his associates will admit to having seen him when he was supposed to have last been in Budapest in June. In May, yes, but not in June. Beck begins to suspect that they are telling the truth and that the journalist did not actually travel to Budapest in June, even though he shows to have been registered at a couple of hotels then. He suspects that the solution to the puzzle will be found back in Sweden.  

What great fun this book was to read! And the fun begins right up front with Val McDermid's wonderful introduction. Martin Beck is aptly described as "not some solo maverick who operates with flagrant disregard for the rules and thinly disguised contempt for the lesser mortals who surround him. Nor is he a phenomenal genius blessed with so extraordinary a talent that mere mortals can only stand back in amazement as he leads them unerringly to the solution to the baffling mystery." No, indeed, Martin Beck is an ordinary man, a middle-aged hypochondriac whose marriage and family life is slowly disintegrating under the pressure of his obsession with his job.

Moreover, Beck works as a part of a team and we get to know the members of that team and learn how their strengths and weaknesses balance each other. This seems a truthful representation of the real nitty-gritty world of police work. At the time that Sjowall/Wahloo were writing these books, that seems to have been a new concept.

One of the great pleasures of reading this book was the descriptions - both of people and of places. Another pleasure was the sly humor which underlay so many of those descriptions and the conversations between Beck and his colleagues. As an example, here's a brief description of a man and woman that Beck saw in a hotel in Budapest.
Martin Beck turned his head and saw a person staring at him: a sunburned man of his own age, with graying hair, straight nose, brown eyes, gray suit, black shoes, white shirt and gray tie. He had a large signet ring on the little finger of his right hand and beside him on the table lay a speckled green hat with a narrow brim and a fluffy little feather in the band. The man returned to his double espresso.

Martin Beck moved his eyes and saw a woman staring at him. She was African and young and very beautiful, with clean features, large brilliant eyes, white teeth, long slim legs and high insteps. Silver sandals and a tight-fitting light-blue dress of some shiny material.

Presumably they were both staring at Martin Beck - the man with envy, the woman will ill-concealed desire - because he was so handsome.
I would recognize those people if they walked into my room right now! Especially that woman with her "high insteps." It must be said that Beck seems to have a bit of a foot fetish going because one of the things that he always notices about women is their feet.

Well, I could go on, but let me just sum this up by saying that I loved this book and I look forward with eager anticipation to reading the next eight in the ten book series. And while I'm reading, I'll be looking for the ways in which Sjowall/Wahloo's Martin Beck was the forerunner of so many other popular dour, dyspeptic Scandinavian policemen of modern-day fiction.


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