Detective Martin Beck manages one day of holiday with his wife and two children on the Stockholm archipelago before he is called back to the office and asked to investigate an unusual case. A Swedish journalist has vanished in Budapest and the authorities want to travel to the city to see if they can discover what has happened to him. Beck arrives in the sweltering city to find himself trying to track a ghost. Despite the Hungarian police being suspicious about his presence, he methodically pieces together various clues, seemingly to little benefit. The journalist was clearly involved in criminal activity, but he’s as difficult to grasp onto as a wisp of smoke.
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is a curious book. The edition I read is 198 pages long and for the first 80 or so very little happens. The narrative focuses on mundane, everyday life – Beck’s increasingly distant relationship with his family, his ambivalence towards his job, getting to know a new city. There are no dramatic events, no sudden revelations or twists and turns, no quickening of the pace. In this sense, the pacing and observations mimic Beck himself, who finds it difficult to summon any interest or enthusiasm for the case. And yet the story is captivating. Sjowall and Wahloo’s prose has a calm but insistent cadence as they immerse the reader in Beck’s world and the cities of Stockholm and Budapest. They portray a terrific sense of atmosphere and place. In the second half of the book, there is a shift in pace as the clues start to be aligned and people start to react to Beck’s investigation. A wonderfully under-stated police procedural.