The second novel in the Martin Beck series, first published in 1966, oozes suspense, evoking memories of Graham Greene's 'The Third Man'. When reading the book, I was also struck by the huge influence it had on its genre. Each section of the story conjures up memories of different crime dramas, including Peter Falk's Lieutenant Columbo and Gene Hackman as detective 'Popeye' Doyle in 'The French Connection'. 'The Man Who Went Up in Smoke' is a police fiction classic, widely credited for changing the genre.
The story revolves around missing journalist Alf Matsson, a sports/political/social journalist for a Swedish weekly who has gone AWOL in Budapest. Detective Martin Beck is called back to Stockholm from his family holiday to travel east and solve the case. As the story unfolds, the case becomes less innocent and more hostile.
The most intriguing aspect of the case is that Beck never actually sees the man he is looking for, but only a series of significant props; Matsson's passport, hotel key and luggage. This adds to the suspense and distrust in the plot. Incidentally, the device of never revealing the true story to the audience/reader is very similar to the technique used by British director Alfred Hitchcock. The great filmmaker described this device as a Macguffin. The only difference in style is that Hitchcock reveals a secret to his audience, allowing them in on the plot. Sjöwall and Wahlöö prefer to leave both their hero and reader in the dark. This allows the mystery to build to extreme levels before the conclusion of the piece.
Martin Beck is a fascinating, understated character that draws the reader in with his unassuming, wise, police manner. In addition to their central character, husband and wife writing team Sjöwall and Wahlöö create a wonderful web of supporting characters. Not least among these are Beck's superior officer Lennart Kollberg and his Hungarian counterpart Inspector Szluke. Kollberg is a pal of Beck's who is most concerned by his colleague missing out on the crayfish season as a result of his foreign assignment. Szluke is an eccentric yet brilliant policeman who cannot leave his work at the office - but finds a visit to the Palatine Baths a wonderful way to relax and discuss a case.
The book also touches upon several interesting aspects of the social milieu at the time, including the almost naïve, trusting openness of the Sixties 'flower power' era. The paranoia created in Europe by the Iron Curtain is also very much in evidence.
This is the second in a series of six novels; all translated from Swedish into 35 languages and selling over ten million copies worldwide. Each one follows Beck as his family life disintegrates as a result of his stressful work life and he moves up the Stockholm police ranks from Detective to Superintendent to Chief Inspector. It is also possible to find a film version of the fourth book in the series, 'The Laughing Policeman', starring Walter Matthau.
'The Man Who Went Up in Smoke' is thoroughly accessible and will be of most interest to fans of the roman policier, pulp fiction and film noir. It's a bang for bucks read. Buy it.
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