According to the cover of my paperback (on the left) this was the second case for Martin Beck, the Stockholm police detective created by husband and wife authors Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was the third, but no matter, it is a highly exciting novel that conflates two manhunts and takes the Ed McBain procedural style into ever darker and muddier waters. Indeed, for 1967 this is a book that spares nobody’s blushes in its penetrating depiction of the changes taking place in Swedish society.
I submit this book & film review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; and Rich Westwood’s celebration of all things 1967 over at Past Offences.
“The mugger had nothing against the weather”
This novel features two plots that eventually overlap and converge. In the first, the oafish Gunvald Larsson investigates a series of violent muggings undertaken by a man who, unfortunately for the police and the population at large, takes his job very seriously. Larsson is sarcastic, a boor and very heavy-handed but as the muggings pile up and get nastier, the outcry from the public starts to grow. This all changes when a shocking murder takes place …
“The time was half past six on the morning of June 2, 1967. The city was Stockholm”
Martin Beck is the senior detective in the story, and undoubtedly the protagonist of the series, but the portrait we are offered is not heroic but that of a civil servant approaching middle age, an experienced professional who is respected at work but whose marriage is falling apart. Much of the story is not driven by him – indeed, most of the important events take place without him. But the reason he is the protagonist is that he is able to synthesise the various disparate elements to ultimately find the solution, though when he goes to make the arrest he actually nabs the wrong person. Initially, when the story begins he is away to escape the pressures at home and at work, but it is his overhearing of one of Larsson’s comments that triggers a solution. The second case begins on 2 June, while Beck is out of town, when a young girl is found strangled in a public park, her panties removed as a trophy. When a second body is found in the same park where a mugging also took place, it becomes clear that the meticulous robber must have seen the killer. Will he be the key to finding the strangler?
“He thought too of the swift gansterisation of this society, which in the last resort must be a product of himself and of the other people who lived in it and had a share of its creation.”
The style and structure are highly reminiscent Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series (he had published 20 of them by the time the Swedish series began), though Sjöwall claims that they had not heard of him until later (at which point they even started translating the series for publication in Sweden). This is a bit hard to believe, especially because the use of reported dialogue and the ‘corporate hero’ approach is so similar – and certainly the alliterative duo of Kurt Kvant and Karl Kristiansson will make most 87th Precinct fans think of McBain’s none-too-bright homicide dicks, Monoghan & Monroe. None the less, the two series are different in many other respects, most importantly for the way that a Marxist perspective is brought to bear. It is never so heavy-handed as to get in the way of the narrative, but provides us with a fascinating view of Swedish society, under-funded and stuck in its ways, that is none the less on the cusp of change. It is this part of the series that probably makes it stand out and which had such a big influence on the Scandinavian authors that followed in their path – but Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were superb storytellers too. If you haven’t sampled their joint efforts, you really should.
The Martin Beck series – aka ‘The Story of a Crime’
- Roseanna (Roseanna, 1965)
- The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966)
- The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen, 1967)
- The Laughing Policeman (Den skrattande polisen, 1968)
- The Fire Engine That Disappeared (Brandbilen som försvann, 1969)
- Murder at the Savoy (Polis, polis, potatismos!, 1970)
- The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle, 1971)
- The Locked Room (Det slutna rummet, 1972)
- Cop Killer (Polismördaren, 1974)
- The Terrorists (Terroristerna, 1975)
In Sweden the Martin Beck books have been adapted several times for cinema and TV. The only English-language adaptation of The Man on the Balcony that I have though is the BBC version from 2012 made as part of The Martin Beck Killings, a series of one-hour versions of all ten novels in the cycle.
The adaptation is derived from the same translation by Alan Blair as the print editions and is remarkably faithful considering it has to boil down the story to a one-hour slot. This means that the number of stranglings is reduced from 3 to 2, which I wasn’t too sorry about, but it also drained off most of the social commentary, which I think was a great shame. It did however also do something rather clever, retaining the joint authorial presence by having not one but two narrators, one female (Lesley Sharp) and one male (Nicholas Gleaves), taking alternate sentences in some cases. Steven Mackintosh is perhaps a bit too youthful-sounding as Beck but none the less make the sensitivity of the man very apparent while Neal Pearson as Kollberg is, as ever, first-rate, as is Adrian Scarborough as Melander. The entire series is available to buy as a CD or download from the likes of Amazon, Audible.co.uk, BBC Shop, etc.
The Man on the Balcony / The Martin Beck Killings (BBC, 10 November 2012)
Director: Mary Peate
Scriptwriter: Katie Hims
Music: Elizabeth Purnell
Cast: Steven Mackintosh (Beck), Neal Pearson (Kollberg), Adrian Scarborough (Melander), Ralph Ineson (Larsson), Sam Alexander (Kvant), Harry Livingstone (Kvist), Lesley Sharp and Nicholas Gleaves (narrators)
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘outside UK and US’ category: