Review: The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

The third of ten novels in a well-planned series THE MAN ON THE BALCONY takes place in 1967 at the tail end of the Swedish summer. In quick succession the bodies of two young girls are found in Stockholm parks and despite pouring countless man hours and other resources into the case police are hampered by a lack of evidence and community outrage which leads to a plethora of useless information and the formation of vigilante groups that siphon resources from the main case.

The central figure of this series, Martin Beck, is taking a short holiday at the start of the story but soon returns to lead the frustrated investigative team. And the depiction of that frustration is a real highlight of the book because it is almost palpable. There is virtually no physical evidence at either crime scene and one of only two potential witnesses is a 3-year old boy who cannot be questioned in the normal way. In desperation the team focuses on the other possible lead: a mugger who has been operating in the city for some weeks and who carried out his own attack in the park where the first child’s body was found on the same night as she was killed. The way that this thread unfolds – starting with the dawning realisation that the mugger might be the only lead and quickly developing an understanding that if they find him they might have to do a deal in order to secure information about the greater crime – is utterly gripping.

It’s no secret that the authors of this series were trying to do more than tell stories. They wanted to use the conventions of the police procedural as a backdrop to what they, as Socialists, saw as the degradation of Swedish society and it is in this third book that this element really takes hold. There is hardly a character or an incident which doesn’t shine some light on the cracks in the country’s much vaunted social democracy and I imagine it must have been something of a shock in some circles in its day. What is perhaps even more astonishing is that this aspect of the book is completely undated. If you ignored the fact that no one’s whipping out a warrant for DNA or waving an ultra-violet light over every surface the story has a very contemporary feel to it. The chronic shortage of money and time for the police and other essential services, the increasing use of ever more dangerous drugs by a growing segment of the population, the instant and often violent response to a perceived social collapse by seemingly average members of the community are all things that are reflected in the world I see every day. For a book that is 45 years old to feel like it was written yesterday is a near miraculous achievement.

Although I liked the book very much I couldn’t in all conscience recommend it to those of you feeling a bit down as it is a much bleaker book than its two predecessors. Partly this is due to the fact that the case at the book’s heart is the most heinous faced by Beck and his colleagues to date and, perhaps as a direct result of this, there is virtually none of the black humour that I noticed in the earlier novels. Even the personal lives of Beck and his team are somewhat desperate, with Beck’s marriage – seen only in brief snippets – seeming to disintegrate on the page.

Although I still feel somewhat embarrassed to be so late in discovering this wonderful series I am thoroughly enjoying making my way through it and think it is a different, probably more rewarding, experience than the one I would have had if I’d read the books at a younger age. The fact that they are available as recent re-issues, with wonderful introductions by present-day crime writers who were influenced by the books (here it’s Andrew Taylor) and post-story treats including an author interview is a real bonus. I’ll choose to believe I’m not the only crime fan who hasn’t already devoured the books and recommend them to you. THE MAN ON THE BALCONY is dark, uncomfortable thoroughly gripping read. I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4/5
Translator Alan Blair
Publisher Harper Perennial [this edition 2007, original edition 1967]
ISBN 9780007242931
Length 208 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #3 in the Martin Beck series.
Source I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

This entry was posted in book review, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Sweden. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Review: The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

  1. So glad to see you enjoying and recommending Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. When ever I hear anyone raving about the latest Nordic superstar I want to wave the Martin Beck flag. There is great pleasure in reading the books in order too. The authors wrote them as a ten part novel. Many years ago I read one of them randomly and thought “meh.” Returning to them older and wiser and reading them in order …. wow … they pack a punch. Be warned …. they get darker.

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    • MarinaSofia says:

      I agree with all that, I was completely bowled over by these books when I finally found them reissued and bought the whole set, reading them in order. This one is probably my favourite, although it’s hard to choose.

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  2. Bernadette – I’m so pleased that you’re enjoying this series! One of the points you make – that it’s really not dated if you go a bit deeper – is very well-taken. I think that’s actually part of what makes this series so powerful. Forty-five years on this book still has things to say. I’d second your suggestion too that this is one to be read when one’s ready for a bleaker novel. It’s effective but not something that cheers one up…

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  3. Sarah says:

    I agree that this is a very bleak book and the neutral language seems to make the subject matter more shocking. What I like about this series is that each book could stand on it’s own. And your post reminded me that I must read the next one in the series.

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  4. Kathy D. says:

    I read this one last year and am savoring the thought of reading I the final three I have left to read in the series, as I do with Camilleri’s books.

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  5. Kathy D. says:

    Just a comment: I agree with your comments at FF about Otto Penzler’s thesis that U.S. and British crime fiction are superior to that from all other countries. That thinking is so retro and takes us back about 50 years.
    One of the good things about the Internet is that it — and wonderful blogs like this one — introduces us to global writers. It is a joy to discover their books.
    It’s so absurd to go backwards to an insular, myopic world view — in this day of the Internet, with news and information coming from everywhere, authors galore from everywhere. It’s just fantastic. (Also, I didn’t even see the writing team mentioned here, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, known as the “parents” of Swedish crime fiction.)

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  6. Pingback: Books of the Months – October (& September) 2012 | Reactions to Reading

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