Monday, May 21, 2018

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

The second Martin Beck novel takes a different tack from the first, in terms of the character of the victim. It's still based on established investigative technique, etc. But whereas the victim in Roseanna was a perhaps troubled but fundamentally innocent person, here it's someone who is a bit of a rat, a drunkard, a womanizer, and worse, as we come to find out. Alf Mattson is also a talented journalist. When he disappears on assignment in Hungary, Beck is called in to work the case unofficially. I'm not sure I understand this "unofficial" point. Hungary was rather different in 1966. The Cold War was on and it was in the Soviet sphere—maybe that explains it. At any rate, Beck goes there and pokes around a bit, accomplishing nothing. When he finally contacts the Budapest police, at first unwillingly, then the case slowly starts to crack open. Mattson had traveled to Hungary on assignment. He'd reported from there before, but this time he disappeared almost as soon as he arrived and nothing was heard from him since. This case gets a bit complicated as both the crime and investigation require a lot of subterfuge, with passport and visa manipulation, black market activities, and generally a high level of paranoia. Authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not as good at spy stories, so this suffers a little in that regard. But it's police technique that solves it: a close analysis of descriptions of the victim's clothes compared with what was found in his abandoned traveling case and his closet at home in Stockholm. The most interesting point is the description of Budapest and Hungarian life, which of course in many ways is no different from Swedish life. I'm sure that was much of the intended point then, but it's lost a little in these post-Cold War times when it's harder to remember how real the divisions were. Only 10 years before publication of this novel Soviet tanks had rolled through Hungary asserting Soviet authority. Martin Beck's dour yet dogged personality is developed further, and we start to see a little more of the complex and interesting characters around him, such as Lennart Kollberg. As in Roseanna, Beck befriends a police investigator beyond Stockholm, who similarly just wants to use established technique to haul in the bad guys. It's a short novel too, perfect for an easy day.

In case it's not at the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment