Saturday, December 08, 2007

book review - The Man Who Went up in Smoke


Most detectives are based in a particular geographical location that is often as famous as there are. So you get Morse in Oxford and Holmes in London. The creation of husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is meant to be based in Sweden but Martin Beck spends most of this novel in Budapest.

Because of the dual locations there is a real fear that the sense of character development that started in Roseanna will stall and to some extent it does because the marriage breakdown and self analysis that is often bordering on hypochondria is put on ice in Hungary. The research that the couple put in shows because the city feels natural and not over described. You always get the feeling when someone is constantly referring to street maps and famous places that are making up for insecurity about a lack of knowledge. This book does not show that tendency and is more enjoyable as a consequence.

The story just like Roseanna keeps you guessing and wondering what will happen until the end but unlike the first novel in the series there is never any sign of the missing journalist who occupies Beck's time, The journalist turns out to be a drug dealer and a terrible friend to other hacks. His tendency to drink large amounts and then abuse the wives and fiancés of those he hangs around with eventually costs him his life. But it takes the trip to Budapest for Beck to work out just how easy it would be to pretend to be the journalist and steal a passport from behind the desk at the hostel and then return to Sweden.

When the climax comes there is a reference to the title about the way the end comes for the drug-pedalling journalist. Beck returns to his spoilt holiday and slips back into his slowly disintegrating personal life. The reality of the anticlimax after solving a case hits him hard and it is another touch that shows the writing ability of the duo. Far too many people view thrillers as pap that can be read and then disposed of. Maybe that is true of some books but this is characterisation and plot making of a very high order and this should be read before being written off.

One of the reasons why you might stick with a series like this is because of Beck but it is the Swedish landscape and the approach to solving crimes that are described here that make you want to read on.

Version read - Harper Perennial paperback

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