Guest Review of The Man on the Balcony by Sjowall and Wahloo

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!

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Review of Camilla Lackberg’s The Hidden Child by Ananth Krishnan

This review is, once again, contributed by guest blogger Ananth Krishnan of India. Thanks, Ananth!

The capability to learn from the mistakes made in one’s life is a critical facet of every human being and one such learning that I made recently was to avoid starting a Camilla Lackberg novel at bed time. You would assume that it is a simple lesson to learn and implement but I for one have been a massive failure at this. On the same hand I have to admit that it is one lesson that I don’t mind ignoring especially when it comes to Ms. Lackberg. Lured back by the serene backgrounds of Fajallbacka and its cozy setting, The Hidden Child is my latest Scandinavian feast and I am glad that the two nights I devoted to this has me convinced that it is the the strongest book in her canon.

A Nazi medal found amongst Erica’s mother’s belongings (and some old diaries) kick things off with her trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that shrouds her mother’s past – Erica is egged on by the one thread of hope that her mother’s past would probably hold an explanation to the estranged kind of relationship that she had always shared with her mother. However things go awry when the retired history teacher who she approaches to seek information about the medal is found dead two days later. When another member of what was the erstwhile inseparable-childhood-foursome is also killed (Erica’s mother and the murdered history teacher being a part of this group), it sets into motion a tumult of events that finally converge into a chilling finale – apparently the events of 60 years back amidst the world war are bearing consequences that affect the lives of those in the present day Fajallbacka. Expertly tying in the past with the ever-looming threat of the neo-Nazi movement getting more momentum in the present, Camilla is able to deliver a plot that is coherent and engaging – an absorbing tale that is intricately woven and grippingly presented.

The honours of the translation this time around belongs to Tiina Nunnally (wife of Steven Murray who translated all of the earlier novels) and I find this a better read. Not that I had any issues with his works but I found this novel sported a tauter prose that literally sucks the reader into its words. By now Camilla is a household name in the world of crime fiction and this novel also features all the staple ingredients. Take for instance – Mellberg, the ever-grumpy police chief and Gosta, the golf aficionado – there are the usual digs present but this time around Gosta seems to be surprise his colleagues with his hidden knowledge and Holmes’ian moments (not to mention the display of his tender side!) while Mellberg is shown to have a very sensitive side that paints him in a much warmer tone – the fact that Camilla has built a strong array of characters gives her the perfect opportunity to embellish them with more details that keeps them interesting and unpredictable. Not to mention the fact that this novel also introduces Paula (Ernst’s replacement at the Tanumshede police station) – a committed and thorough professional who has her own strengths to bring to the table and is another refreshing addition to the myriad set of recurring personas (Paula has her own little secret which I shall not divulge and leave it your pleasure to find out!).

Interestingly enough there is a role reversal in the Hedstrom family – while Erica is out doing a lot of legwork to unravel the enigma of her mother’s past, Patrik is on a four month paternal leave solely in charge of the one year old Maja – this results in some hilarious exchanges between them with Patrik’s inability to resist the temptation to involve himself in the ongoing case thus committing some basic blunders when it comes to taking care of a one year old! I have literally just touched the tip of the iceberg for there are a multitude of other people who keep the plot interesting and the pages turning.  The icing on the cake is how the events of the second world war neatly tie into the present day happenings – a good amount of research has gone into the book which serves as a veritable source for understanding the Nordic role during the world war. However my one teeny-weeny gripe is Camilla’s layout with alternating chapters detailing the present and the past – this style is getting a little repetitive and a change in presentation would do nicely.

The Hidden Child is a fascinating book where Camilla Lackberg clearly plays to her strengths that has resulted in the string of consistently successful books she is able to come out with. This book is just additional testimony to the fact that she indeed has the goods to pull of a riveting and engrossing read or in superlative-fiction parlance – a real “page-turner”. All I wish for is the translators and the publishers to get a move on for I just cannot wait to see the next story unfold in this tranquil and quaint Swedish backdrop.

Our Far-Flung Correspondents – The Hand that Trembles by Kjell Eriksson Reviewed by Ananth Krishnan

This review of Kjell Eriksson’s The Hand that Trembles is a guest contribution from Ananth Krishnan, an avid reader and frequent reviewer who lives in India. 

There is no doubt that I have been smitten by the Scandinavian crime bug. If Mankell and Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahloo have sown the seeds, then further care was bestowed by the likes of Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg & Steig Larsson with Kjell Eriksson marking the official existence of the contagion – nevertheless, it is a viral infection that I am enjoying infinitely ! Though all the name dropping above is but a drop in the ocean I think these names are enough proof of the impact these authors have had in the world of crime fiction (not to mention the big fat hole in my wallet, however I must mention here my thanks to Allison & Busby for providing me a review copy of this particular book)

Eriksson’s The Hand that Trembles marks my latest foray into this wonderful world. The book deals with three sub plots, so to say – Sven-Arne’s Persson’s vanishing without a trace from public life after being a successful politician for several years, a dismembered foot washed up on the beach leading Ann Lindell to investigate further and an age old but unsolved crime of the beating to death of Nils Dufva being looked into by Berglund (Ann’s boss). Given that this is crime fiction, there are no points for guessing that these would all be linked somehow but where Eriksson shines is the approach he employs to develop the plot – the characters are all carefully etched and the settings amidst which their interplay happens suggests loads of intricate research.

Eriksson excels in his prose many a time employing excellent metaphors that show an amazing depth in the character – this especially comes to the fore when his characters indulge in their introspective ruminations. Of special mention is the character Ante Persson (Sven-Arne Persson’s uncle), a staunch communist – his trauma is palpable and his portrayal is so vivid that one cannot help but show empathy towards this old man. It is also with this character that Eriksson manages to tie in a militant past that embodies much of Sweden’s actual history (in terms of communism and Nazi politics during the 1930s). The novel ebbs and flows across time and places never leaving the boundaries of the three sub plots yet still managing to inject enough twists and spins to keep the reader interested. As with most other Nordic writers Eriksson too manages a wonderful depiction of community life and how tight knit its inhabitants and their lives are – Bultudden is where the discerped foot appears and it is with its residents that Ann Lindell is pitted against in order to untangle the mystery.

I don’t think I need to specifically mention that I enjoyed this book but I do have to mention some little gripes. I could not help but have a disjointed feeling as I was turning the pages – I don’t know if it was because this was my first read of the series (it is actually eight-old in Swedish and four-old in English) lending to unfamiliarity with the recurring characters or the random order translation of the series itself into English – irrespective, it was something I could not shake off. Not to mean that I found it boring but I found some sections random and incoherent in relation to the flow of events. Ann Lindell comes across as a very promising and talented detective but this particular book does not have enough to paint a picture in my head, I really wished Eriksson would have spent some more time for those not-in-order readers like me. Another thing that I just have to say – I am an Indian and I could not help but judge how Bangalore was portrayed (Bangalore is featured in this book as Sven-Arne Persson’s hideout after his disappearance).  I wonder if Eriksson has actually been to Bangalore but I find the imagery including the nuances fairly accurate but I would have liked it if some judgmental portions were toned down just a touch.

Even so, these issues are just me bellyaching for this was a book that I found to be a very satisfying read. It was a journey that was filled with all the ingredients that a successful crime fiction novel should contain – strong characters with honest portraits of their daily realism, an unassailable plot that is a reward to see resolved and some fitting research work not to mention the tinge of India thrown in to top things off – a winning recipe all around!!!

Thank you, Ananth, for sharing your review with readers of this blog!