The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

The second detective novel by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo featuring Martin Beck as the lead, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, lacks the charm of the first novel. Even attempts to contextualize the book, written in 1966, offer few positives to take away. Where Roseanna featured a wider array of characters and a better crime narrative, the sequel focuses too much on Beck’s introspective and uses a grating twist to solve the case.

Inspector Martin Beck leaves for a summer vacation with his family.  Finally taking the time to relax as he rows across the visited lake, Beck is called back to Stockholm with an urgent request. A prominent journalist, Alf Matsson, has vanished in Hungary and, while Beck has no standing to speak of in the foreign nation, he nonetheless travels to Budapest at the behest of diplomatic corps within Sweden.

Beck travels there on his own with no backup and few, if any, leads. He finds himself in a perilous setting: distrusted and distrusting of local police agencies and pursued by an international drug ring.  Beck eventually helps, through no purposeful effort of his own, crack the drug trafficking ring but is still short one Swedish journalist.  After returning back to Sweden, Beck, with the help of Detective Kollberg, discovers that the fate of the journalist was far more local than they had at first suspected.

The first three quarters of the book are centered around Beck’s activities in Budapest where he continuously doubts himself and wonders why he accepted the task of finding the journalist. Beck’s frequent, lengthy ruminations detract from the character and sour the pace of the novel. The character is unhappy with his marriage (or at least serially unenthusiastic about his wife) and feels entirely ineffectual about his detective work. Sjowall and Wahloo do their character a grave disservice by tossing him to the foreign soil of Hungary.

One of the aspects of Beck that readers are supposed to find endearing is the commonality of his persona.  Beck does not solve cases via leaps of intuition of incredible epiphanies that he and he alone is capable of having. Rather Beck is dogged in his pursuit of the facts and the persons that may be involved in any case. By placing him in Hungary with no resources to speak of and no leads in the case to follow, the reader cannot applaud the efforts of an everyman but instead wallows in his self-doubt and frustration that can be all too similar to their own.  It creates a resentment toward Beck that wasn’t found in the first novel despite both books featuring the mundanity of daily detective work.

Worse than the detrimental character setting is the rather unsatisfying plot resolution. Beck is eventually attacked by the members of the drug ring — the ring amounts to essentially two people — not because he suspected them of illegal activity but because he once stopped to ask them if they new Alf Matsson. Matsson had been a regional dealer for the group and Beck’s single instance of questioning set them off with murderous intentions.

The drug dealers are neither clever nor smart nor cunning nor particularly effective in their attack on Beck and subsequent details reveal that they are drug runners, not by any of those qualities, but by a geographical and cultural loophole of Eastern Europe. Their downfall is a weak happenstance of idiotic persons because of one conversation with Martin Beck. It’s impossible to credit Beck with any of the results and the narrative string feels like a waste of time from what the reader was originally promised at the outset of the novel: a missing person, dead or alive.

Disheartened and tired, Beck returns with only a marginally better suspicion of what may have happened to journalist Alf Matsson. Sjowall and Wahloo guide the reader through the resolution of the primary mystery with little fanfare and sparse details, which amounts to an eminently unsatisfying conclusion. As Martin Beck makes few strides in his introspective musings, the book fails to function as a character piece as well.  Devout fans of crime fiction may read this book but are unlikely to find it enjoyable and certainly not on par with the first novel in the series.

Rating: 2 out of 5

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

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