Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Books, 2009 ed.
Originally published, 1967, as Mannen pa balkongen
 translated by Alan Blair

According to author Jo Nesbø, who wrote the introduction to this edition of the novel (third in the Martin Beck series), Man on the Balcony found its inspiration in an actual case that occurred in Stockholm in 1963.  At that time, two little girls were sexually abused and then murdered by someone who lured them away from the park where they were playing.  Man on the Balcony imagines a similar case and its authors deliver it into the hands of Martin Beck and other detectives of the Stockholm police. 

As the story opens, a man is sitting on his balcony as the sun comes up one June day.  There he smokes cigarettes, drinks coffee, and watches.  He looks at the roofs of other buildings and observes the street below him, and as the city begins to awaken, he watches traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, and a man walking his dog -- nothing out of the ordinary really.  The action then switches to the police station, where Martin Beck and his colleagues are discussing the latest in a series of serious muggings that have been taking place in the city parks. But the worst is yet to come -- in one of these parks, two "seedy figures" looking for coins in the grass take a break, open a bottle to share, and come upon the body of a young girl hidden beneath a bush.  It is only the first of what will become a series of murders, and Beck (who is always referred to as "Martin Beck" throughout the novel) and the other detectives now find themselves in a race against time before the killer strikes again.

The Man on the Balcony is a police procedural, but that particular label isn't the best description for this series. There's much more at work here than the police getting the case, looking for clues and solving it. The policemen, while they do their jobs well, can at times be rather introspective about the state of crime and crime solving.  For example, Detective Inspector Lennart Kollberg, one of the detectives working on the killings,

thought too of the swift gangsterization 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 in its creation.  He thought of the rapid technical expansion that the police force had undergone merely during the last year; despite this, crime always seemed to be one step ahead. He thought of the new investigation methods and the computers, which could mean that this particular criminal might be caught within a few hours, and also what little consolation these excellent technical inventions had to offer the women he had just left, for example. Or himself. Or the set-faced men who had now gathred around the little body in the bushes between the rocks and the red piling.

Sjowall and Wahloo also draw attention to the social climate of the times in Stockholm and Sweden, reflecting not just on what occurs within police precinct walls but throughout the city as well. At the park at Mariatorget, for example, a place where "schoolchildren and other young people met the small-scale dope pushers,"

Every day large quantities of hashish, marijuana, preludin and LSD were passed furtively from seller to buyer. And the buyers were getting younger and younger. Soon they would become addicts... Drug-taking among young people was caused by a catastrophic philosophy which had been provoked by the prevailing system. Consequently society should be duty bound to produce an effective counterargument.
For many readers, the commentary on Sweden of the late 60s might not be a drawing point, but it adds a sense of the realism regarding the society in which these fictional crimes occur. This is a hallmark of the other books in the series as well, in which the authors  "use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type."  But going beyond the social criticism, Man On the Balcony is a realistic novel where the characters behave in a realistic fashion.  Take the main character, Martin Beck, for example. Now a superintendent, he still suffers from insomnia, still has problems with his wife and still has trouble making sense of society, but is not nearly as angst ridden as some of the more modern Scandinavian detectives. He doesn't always agree with his colleagues about the way they're handling either of the cases, but he cares about them and he loves his work. He also knows how to work the system when he needs to. There is a wonderful section in this novel where Beck interviews a three year-old witness that actually made me laugh, but it could only have been Beck that pulled it off.

Man on the Balcony is such a good novel that the time spent reading it just flies by.  There's an incredible sense of sophistication in the writing, the sense of place and time is very well established, and it's an intelligent read. The length of the book might be short, but it doesn't need to be any longer -- everything that's needed to make this novel work is already there, especially in the characterizations.   I can definitely recommend it to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction, to readers who may have read one or two other books in the Martin Beck series and aren't sure about the rest, and to readers of crime fiction in general. 


  1. That dialogue between Martin Beck and the little boy was indeed great.

  2. Actually, it was one of my favorite parts in the book!


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