Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

I knew my love affair with Swedish detective inspector Martin Beck was no fling. I fell hard for him with Roseanna, and it was not too long before I contacted him again for another steamy affair.

Well, steamy, it depends what you look at. This mystery is the second in the series (a sure sign of my devotion is when I respect the order of publication for a series – pretty rare indeed if you know my reading habits). Beck is like his usual self: very very serious, dedicated to the point of being nearly obsessed by his cases, but not emotional at all. And here, he keeps his cool under very steamy, not to mention shady, circumstances.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is basically a locked room mystery, but the room is a whole country within the Iron Curtain. It’s set in 1966 Budapest, the then-communist capital city where you (both as a foreigner or a Hungarian) can’t just move around and come and go as you please. Well, the book is never about repression, but it surely shows that police is everywhere in the country and that they have a lot of information about everyone.

Or almost so.

A Swedish journalist visits Hungary to interview a swimming champion. He shows up at his hotel, drops his luggage, goes out again. And whoops, he’s nowhere to be found anymore. Just gone. Pretty embarrassing for a dictatorship, don’t you think? Beck is sent there on the day of his own annual leave, to find the missing guy without too much embarrassment. And it’s not going to be easy.

Like in Roseanna, the mystery unfolds very slowly, in quiet routine details. But to me, there was the added pleasure of seeing a place I like a lot through his 1966 eyes. Budapest in summer has a seductive torpor, even under Communist rules. Policemen visit thermal spas for a relaxing bath, that is so effective that they drop their guard and exchange information about the case. Beck takes a steamer and stays in a hotel with faded grandeur, whose old bed creaks. It rings quite true.

I can’t wait for my next meeting with Inspector Beck. In Sweden this time? Actually, anywhere he wishes.

6 thoughts on “Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

  1. I have Roseanna on my pile and want to read it, but I seem to be stuck in the world of cozy mysteries at the moment–or at least British detective stories. I like the sound of this one, though. Can you tell when reading that the books are written by two authors and not just one?

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