History of mystery

Did Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö forever change the crime genre? You be the judge

Doug Warne
KKNW Scandinavian Hour

Martin Beck series

Book cover: The Man Who Went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

I enjoy a good crime story set in Scandinavia, and currently the head of my list for Norway is Jo Nesbø. He seems to be cranking them out regularly. While not Norwegian, another of my favorite authors is Henning Mankell. He is Swedish and has a long list of successful crime novels with the major detective Wallander. In one commentary about detective fiction, Mankell said that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö changed the genre.

I don’t know that I agree. I chose to read one of their Martin Beck mysteries and found it pleasant but hardly earthshaking in style or content. There are those who say that many of the elements that have become integral to police-procedural genre started with the 10 Martin Beck books.

Swedes Maj Sjöwall and her husband, Per Wahlöö—who was a journalist with several Swedish newspapers and magazines—wrote the Martin Beck series back in the 1960s and ’70s. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is the second in the series and had enough twists to keep me on my toes as I read. Enough information was revealed about the journalist Alf Matsson’s disappearance in a country within the Russian Bloc that it was interesting and kept me guessing all the time until close to the end.

Inspector Martin Beck of the Stockholm Homicide Squad is called away from his deserved vacation in the Swedish archipelago to this assignment and told he is the only one who can solve the mystery. He goes off to the continent in pursuit of the missing Swedish journalist, but nothing can be found of Matsson in his empty hotel room except his fully packed luggage and typewriter. No passport, no key, nothing to give a clue to Beck or the local police. The police, in turn, seem uninterested in the disappearance of someone they think might just turn up after a bout of drinking or other debauchery. At least they seem to be disinterested.

Unidentified men follow inspector Beck, and the plot takes on a twist as Beck finds that it is not the police who have been surveiling him. Where did Matsson go? There have been no sightings of him after that first half hour in the hotel and no record of his leaving the country, which keeps excellent entrance and exit visa records. The plot gets a bit more complicated as Beck and readers learn of the missing man’s other activities. Are they the catalyst and reason for his disappearance? And who are the strangers following Beck as he attempts to trace the journalist through Budapest?

The book, first published in 1966 as Mannen som gikk upp i rök, is still a good Swedish crime novel and crime buffs will undoubtedly enjoy it.

Doug Warne is the host of The Scandinavian Hour, which has been a community fixture for more than half a century in Seattle. He sponsors many scholarships through the Leif Erikson Lodge of Sons of Norway, and serves on the board of that organization. In 2012, he was named Person of the Year by the Seattle chapter of the NACC.

This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.