By Ananth Krishnan
Ahhh, the fascinating world of Scandinavian crime fiction – the deeper you dig, the more the treasures you are likely to find. And to discover the fact that these little gems are being reissued is reason enough for great rejoicing. The prize I am referring to – the crime fiction series featuring Martin Beck by the inimitable godfather and godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Set during times when crime solving was driven by dogged sleuthing and intuition for there was no fancy CSUs, no DNA fingerprinting and computers were just fancy beasts making their entry into the world of precincts, these novels are a celebration of human spirit and the ultimate triumph of – pardon the cliché – good over evil. Now don’t get me wrong – the crimes on the other hand, were no less gruesome, the world was still being stalked with its fair share of psychopaths, paedophiles, drug addicts, muggers etc – its just that the tools to outwit them were not sophisticated technology but good old tenacious detective work.
The Man on the Balcony is the third in the Martin Beck series and is as good a novel as any other in the canon – compared to the earlier work this novel’s crime is just more grisly and brutal. What was shaping up to be a tranquil summer in Stockholm is riddled with a series of muggings – these seem to be well planned and seem to target particularly defenseless citizens who always seem to have some bounty for the mugger. The efforts of the police to apprehend this pest is in vain but things take a nose dive when a nine old year child is found strangled and sexually assaulted. The macabre tragedy repeats itself leaving the public in a state of fear and the police in a state of helpless desperation. As events unfold Martin Beck is left with two witnesses – the yet-to-be-nailed mugger and a three year old boy who can barely speak sense – a predicament that poses no facile resolution. It is a test of the skills and perseverance of the investigators involved, a battle of mere humans being pitted against the most inhuman of crimes.
Enough about the plot as there are just too many interesting things happening in the 200 pages of this wonderful book – this is police procedural at its best with a cast of lively characters who bring their own unique adroitness (or gaucheness, if you may) to the table. These characters are so well etched that it evokes emotions during the reading – for instance, I always had this distaste for Gunvald Larsson and I think I was wearing a frown whenever I was reading a part that featured him and his misplaced arrogance. Such reactions, for me is what character portrayal is all about – making the leader an emoting part of the plot and not just an impassive third party. More flavour to this array of characters comes in the form of Melander – the ever-calm pipe smoking detective whose elephantine memory is legendary in the force, Kollberg – who abhors violence but is no tyro when it comes to self-defence and is about to become a father in this book, Kristiansson and Kvant – the jilted pair whose incompetence is itself a force to reckon with but in this book manage to nab the actual criminal in the end and the indomitable Martin Beck who is the heart and soul of the series. Each of these personalities are so different yet are united by the single drive to honour justice – in their own way they are all flawed yet in their union they are ultimately human.
The duo with their skillful writing, also manage to achieve an atmosphere of tension and palpable despair. At the outset when there is barely any evidence to go on there is a feeling of such immense helplessness that can actually be felt. The effect of this feeling on all the characters is also well brought out – the contemplations of Beck and Kollberg often stand testimony to the state of despondency they are in. In the end it is their faith in humanity and their own detective prowess that keeps them motivated enough to bring things to an end. Serving as an antidote to this otherwise somber mood are the dialogues in this book – there are the quick ripostes, the hearty banter and the extremely serious exchanges. Of special mention are the ones between Beck and Gunvald Larsson – it builds to a crescendo which you are sure will explode only to find Beck receding into silence thus bringing an abrupt end to it.
The reissue has a brilliant introduction by Andrew Taylor and an end-of-the-book article by Richard Shepherd followed by his interview with Maj Sjowall – all of this makes for some interesting reading that provides a nice little background to the world we are about to take a plunge into. The translation by Alan Blair is wonderful, poignant prose that makes for an absolutely riveting read.
The Man on the Balcony is a crime fiction novel that reiterates the fact that a successful novel depends on a good plot, a coherent set of events, an interesting set of characters and brilliant interplay – it is a book that succeeds on every parameter a crime fiction novel can be measured upon. It also ingeminates the fact that there is no substitute to passionate detective work, that a little bit of luck and intuition (and public help, of course!) always hold the key that opens the door to the eventual answer (in this book it is Beck’s recollections of a conversation that Gunvald Larsson has with whom he supposes is a ‘loony’ woman). It is a 1967 novel that does not seem dated at all in 2012 – what better success story can a book boast of?
Thanks to Ananth Krishnan for contributing this review!