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The Man on the Balcony

A committed reader of crime fiction is probably familiar with the names of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. The pair collaborated on a series of ten police procedural novels featuring Stockholm police detective Martin Beck, and are best known for their realistic portrayal of police investigations along with an underlying commentary of a changing society of the times. Some of the books have been made into films as well. However, originally written in the 1960s, and despite the acclaim it received, getting hold of them these days is another matter altogether.

The Man on the Balcony is the third book in the Martin Beck series by this husband–wife team. It gets off to an intriguing start, with an account of a man on his balcony, watching the street in front of him. The reader wonders why this innocuous pursuit should be getting the pride of place in the story’s opening, but soon we are caught up in far more horrifying events, as Stockholm is shocked by a series of murders of young children.

This is a time before the age of supervised playtime, and parents are panicstricken about letting their children out by themselves. The very scenario, and the helplessness of the police as well as parents bring about a stark realization of how times have changed. In a fascinating narrative, The Man on the Balcony is a gripping account of a frustratingly slow and plodding investigation by the police. In many ways it is the very anti-thesis of what one expects a crime novel to be—there isn’t any edge-of-the-seat suspense, there are no sudden twists that end the chapters, or tantalizingly vague clues that nag the reader’s intelligence.

Yet it is a story that has obviously been told with consummate skill, and one misses all that has been lost in translation. What it does have without a doubt is a lot of atmosphere. The authors often open chapters from varying perspectives, and we get to see events as they unfold through the eyes of more than one person—some of them police, some of them not. It is said that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote alternate chapters, which might explain the changes in perspectives.

A word about the translation. Well, I’m of the belief that no translated work can retain everything of the original, and The Man on the Balcony is clearly no exception. There are parts of the novel where the narration is extremely awkward, and there possibly not a single conversation that would have been realistic in English. The repeated reference to most of the characters with their full names, such as “Martin Beck” or “Gunvald Larsson” every single time can get pretty annoying. Is it bad manners in Sweden to use just first names or just surnames?

Martin Beck went out, shut the door behind him and collided with Kollberg, who had come rushing up. Martin Beck saw the frantic expression on Kollberg’s round face…

However, this is not to say that the book lacks humour. There isn’t a great deal of it, but every now and then you catch yourself smiling.

All said and done, the awkwardness in the language is endearing, as it reminds us that one is in fact reading a novel originally written in another language. It also underscores a viewpoint miles removed from the Anglo-American one that most readers of English-language crime fiction are stuck with—one that we are given to believe represents the “West” and one that we never really question.

Thus, these oddly-worded conversations, sometimes veering towards the inane, coupled with reactions and observations that seem alien to the way we are schooled to seeing our British or American protagonists show, all point to a refreshing new look at a very different society, and its values and sensibilities. Like Henning Mankell in his Kurt Wallander books — also translated from the Swedish—Sjöwall and Wahlöö too pontificate a good deal on the changing Scandinavian nation of their present day. This is despite the fact that there were thirty years between Kurt Wallander and Martin Beck. While Mankell prefers to articulate Wallander’s depressive mental ramblings, going by The Man on the Balcony Sjöwall and Wahlöö do so more by means of conversation, thus making for a far lighter reading experience and throwing up far fewer philosophical questions.

To sum up, looks like further investigations into Superitendent Martin Beck is required before one can deliver a final verdict. But to give it a miss would be a complete mistake.

RATING: 7.5/10