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the man on the balcony

18 january 2020

The Man on the Balcony is the third of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels, and the first where their sardonic social commentary starts to break through the police-procedural surface in a major way.

In Roseanna, the focus is on detection and suspense; in The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, there's an espionage plot to provide the hook. The Man on the Balcony doesn't lack for thrills, either. The title character may be a child-murderer who is terrorizing Stockholm, but the police have almost nothing to go on, except a half-remembered connection in the back of Martin Beck's mind. It is a race against time to get Beck's synapses firing in the correct order.

In the meantime, the parks of central Stockholm become killing grounds, amid a general squalor of homelessness, muggings, prostitution, drug addiction, and an understaffed, ill-deployed, and only partially well-meaning police force. I read all of the Martin Beck novels before ever visiting Stockholm, and I'm now re-reading them against my memories of the city. Its avenues and balconies are much as they were in 1967, I imagine, but Stockholm is a peaceful and prosperous place now, if a bit overrun by tourists like me. Was it ever the dystopia that Sjöwall and Wahlöö suggest?

Critics of the welfare state from the left, Sjöwall and Wahlöö develop an analysis that shows how easy it is for discontent to tip over to the right. The Man on the Balcony begins to expand the role that the violent, intolerant inspector Gunvald Larsson plays on Beck's team. Larsson is something of an idiot: if he were more patient, the central murderer in the novel could have been caught at the start. But he is also effective. A key scene in the middle of the book shows Larsson catching a mugger who proves to be a crucial witness to the killings. He catches the mugger by breaking down a door, and his show of force, though foolhardy and flamboyant, impresses the mugger (himself a violent man) so much that Larsson is eventually the only one who can draw information from him. The uses of violence, and perhaps the inevitability of violence in a century caught between communist and fascist violence, are themes throughout the Martin Beck novels, and the final word on the issue may be simple pessimism. Even Kollberg, the sensitive, tortured intellectual on the team, is a tough customer, as he shows by fending off a couple of vigilantes. Everything may come down to raw power.

Pessimism pervades the Beck novels, and it has a peculiar spin. I'd noted in Wahlöö's Steel Spring a curious concern about uniformity, particularly in diet, and it pops up as well in The Man on the Balcony. A policeman passes a mom-and-pop bakery, and thinks

Soon they'll vanish altogether and you'll be able to buy nothing but mass-produced bread in plastic wrapping and the entire Swedish nation will eat exactly the same loaves and buns and cakes. (149)
Which, if I think about it, was pretty much the baked-goods situation in the United States in 1967.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Man on the Balcony. [Mannen på balkongen, 1967.] Translated by Alan Blair. 1968. New York: Vintage, 2009. PT 9876.29 .J63M713