I bought the 10 book set in 2009 from the sadly defunct Book People. Starting reading with book 4 (the most famous, The Laughing Policeman) when Maj Sjöwall visited the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013, waited until 2019 to actually start reading and reviewing the series in order. In my review of Roseanna I stated I wouldn’t wait another decade until I reviewed the next. I’ve kept my word – it’s been 3 years. I don’t know why these books wait so long for me to pick them up. Police procedurals which inspired the great Henning Mankell to created Kurt Wallander, written in the mid-1960s before technology made information accessible at the push of a button, and mobile phones made everyone available all of the time …

I picked book 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966 trans. Joan Tate) for Annabel’s #NordicFinds (Sweden Week) because I like cold books in the winter months. So it was a bit of a surprise to find myself transported to a hot summery Budapest. Not complaining, I love Budapest, especially in the heat of summer, so wandering the streets with Martin Beck was most enjoyable. Wandering being the opportune word …. Martin Beck finds himself alone in Budapest searching for a missing Swedish journalist. The operation is hush, hush because the authorities, seeking to avoid a diplomatic incident, want the man found before the story hits the Swedish newspapers. (Which given the man’s profession, it could do at any moment.) So Beck is sent out alone, to stay in the hotel the man disappeared from. The only other clue he has is that there is a female in the mix …

It is a case of getting nowhere fast, until he is approached by Vilmos Szluka of the Hungarian police. Now this being the 1960s with Hungary a firmly Communist state, Beck is suspicious, particularly as he feels he has been under surveillance from the moment he arrived. However, turns out it’s not the Hungarian police he needs to be fearful of …

Well, it wouldn’t do for two left-wing authors to show communist authorities in a bad light, would it? In fact, they show them to be a model of efficiency – frightening efficiency, in fact. Pivotal in saving Beck’s life and helping him uncover a drugs ring he found but wasn’t looking for! As for the missing journalist … Beck’s own team back in Sweden are key to solving that mystery; the point being that solving crime takes cooperation and team work. Beck may be the boss but he’s not a genius, and without the others, he really would be wandering the streets of Budapest, lost, clueless and utterly ineffective.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is my first 5* read of 2022 – it’s probably a solid 4* but I awarded the fifth star for two reasons: the vicarious sightseeing of Budapest and the terrific play on words of the title. I can think of multiple ways in which it can be interpreted, but I’m not telling! Anyway, I enjoyed it so much, I immediately picked up book number 3.

The Man on The Balcony (1967, trans. Alan Blair) is firmly set in a Stockholm under double threat. Firstly there’s the mugger, callous and brutal, and then there’s the serial killer, who assaults and kills small girls. The novel is dealing with serious issues, but the authors exercise restraint with their depiction of the crimes. Only one mugging is shown in real time. It is shocking. It suffices. The assaults on the girls are never shown, only the aftermath with much empathy extended to the bereaved mothers, and the poor police officers who have to watch over the broken corpses and break the tragic news.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s objective was to show the true face of policing: long hours, hard work, the emotional toll on both victims of crime and the police themselves. They do so in matter of fact but powerful prose. Despite Beck’s team’s dedication, manually sifting through hundreds of tip-offs, catching both culprits depends in a large measure on lucky breaks. Normally I wouldn’t like these kind of convenient plot twists, but how often do we hear of small and not-so-small coincidences cracking cases wide open?

In addition to the realism of the police procedural, these novels are filled with astute and profound human psychology. Martin Beck isn’t, at this point, the typical divorced inspector with alcohol problems, and I have no idea if that is where he is heading (so don’t tell me). However, the growing estrangement between himself and his wife is clear: her dissatisfaction at being left alone for long periods; his choosing to leave her that way. (He could have turned down the assignment to Budapest, but he didn’t.) In The Man on The Balcony, the wife of one of a newly-married colleagues is pregnant, and the contrast between the two marriages is made apparent when the men return home exhausted. It doesn’t bode well for Beck, and I’ll find out soon what happens next. I’ve decided this is the series I’ll be finishing in 2022, a cool 13 years after I purchased it!