THE MAN ON THE BALCONY (1967) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Sjowall-Wahloo_Man-on-the-Balcony_gollanczAccording 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”

Sjowall-Wahloo_balconyMartin 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.

bbc-martinbeckkillings

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:

01-Vintage-Silver-Sjowall_Wahloo

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Police procedural, Sweden. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to THE MAN ON THE BALCONY (1967) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

  1. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and I have also seen the Swedish film Mannen på balkongen (1993) based on the book. The film was a great success and won the Swedish Guldbagge award for the best screenplay and was nominated for the best film and the best cinematography.
    The film is essentially faithful to the book though only one mugging is shown and the climax is totally different.
    Incidentally, a real-life event of rape and murder of 2 girls aged 6 and 4 in the Stokholm region in 1963 and 1964 gave the authors the idea for the book. The culprit confessed to 2 previous murders of adult women. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ingvar_L%C3%B6vgren

  2. Sergio – I honestly think this is one series that every crime fiction fan ought to read. It’s one of the foundations (in my opinion) of today’s crime fiction, and there is so much that’s good in it. A classic set of books. Admittedly some are better than others. But all of them are terrific. A ‘must read’ series.

  3. Colin says:

    As I told you before, my exposure to Scandinavian crime is slight to say the least. This series sounds like a good way to dip into it though.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent stuff. I *love* the Martin Beck series, and when I first read them I was, like you, immediately reminded of the McBains. The coincidences seem too unlikely for there to be no inflluence. Nevertheless, the Becks are a wonderful series of ensemble cast mysteries and I loved reading them one after the other and watching the changes in Swedish society. I still feel personally they’re the best of the Scandicrime books.

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    One of my absolute favourite series – you make me want to reread them all. Certainly, The Man on the Balcony is the third in the series, what is that ‘second case’ cover on about?! It is one of my favourites, although the subject matter is so grim (alongside The Abominable Man, I agree with you, and The Laughing Policeman – but perhaps if I reread them, I may feel differently?).

    • Thanks very much Marina – certainly a grim subject matter but because of the seriousness of the authors it never feels exploitative. Glad you are a fan of The Abominable Man – I look foreard to reading it too 🙂

  6. Another series that I’ve yet to get round to. One day…

    • I know you are not a big one for police procedurals, but this is a very varied series (and even has a locked room mystery in, er, well, the one entitled ‘The Locked Room’). Really worth getting into though, honest!

  7. Sarah says:

    A great book but actually grim reading. It’s one of my favourites in the series.

  8. Bev Hankins says:

    This was the first Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall book that I read. One of the professors here got it for me and I have to say it is my favorite so far (I’ve read three others)–even though I have a really difficult time with books that feature violence to children. Fortunately, my enjoyment of the writing, the characters, and the story itself far outweighed any squeamishness on my part to read about child-murder.

    • Thanks Bev – it is handled very adroitly it seems to me but I agree, in general I can’t read books on that topic. I’m just finishing off a post on a book about a kidnapping and I plan to to say upfront how that part of the plot pans out, spoilers be damned, because I think most people would want to know right away. It’s too tragic an issue and unless it’s a realy serious book, I just can’t stomach it frankly.

      • Bev Hankins says:

        I would want to know and would thank you for the spoiler. I never could take violence to children…but once I became a mother (no matter that my son is now 22), it became (and remains) even more difficult.

        • Thanks Bev – well, exactly, I feel the same – my two nieces will be 11 this year and have never been more precious. Incidentally, the post I was referring to will be up on the 27th and is for Katherine Howell’s Frantic.

  9. tracybham says:

    Very interesting about the cover saying it was the 2nd book in the series. I do like that cover though. I have only read the one and plan to read in order, so will get to #2 at least this year. Very nice review.

  10. Sergio, I’m going to have to check this series, especially considering that Scandi fiction is alien to me. The comparison with Ed McBain was interesting, so I know what to expect. Although, I wonder, how an English name like “Martin Beck” got in as the key character.

    • I really hope you get to try these Prashant – they are powerful and accessible – and unusual combination. As for the name, it is the other way round most likely – names like Martin and Beck were inherited from various Nordic and Roman invasions (Martin is certainly derived from the Latin name ‘Martinus’ for the planet Mars) – certainly part of our Anglo-Saxon heritage, let’s put it that way!

  11. John Marr says:

    Unlike the irrational and random order so many other Scandi series are translated into English, I actually think there was a method to the madness of publishing BALCONY before the real Martin Beck #2, THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE. In the late ’60s, when these books were being translated, your typical American reader knew little about Sweden beyond the fact they made dirty movies there. Much of the action in SMOKE actually takes place in Hungary. I’m sure one of the bright minds in marketing figured giving readers the first two books in the series to familiarize themselves with this alien landscape before sending the hero behind the Iron Curtain was better way to hook readers.

    And besides, BALCONY is the better book!

    • Thanks very much for that John – I think you must be right (and indeed, Up in Smoke is not one I remember all that well myself). On the other hand, my paperback was a reprint from several decades later so they could have got their act together by then as the series was well-established! Well, you might have hoped … 🙂

  12. Pingback: ‘It was like being at a children’s panto’ #1967book round-up | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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