The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Man on the Balcony (Martin Beck #3)The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm reading my way through this iconic ten book series by Swedish duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The series was written in the 1960s and is the forerunner of much of modern popular Scandinavian thriller/mysteries. This is the third book in the series which features the morose policeman Martin Beck, now a superintendent in the Stockholm police.

This time, we find Martin Beck and his colleagues investigating some particularly heinous crimes. Young girls are being raped and killed, their bodies left in the once-peaceful public parks of Stockholm. We follow the police as they follow their investigatorial procedures, collecting evidence from the scenes of crime, interviewing potential witnesses, checking public records for previously identified or prosecuted sex criminals, pounding the pavement and burning the midnight oil. No one can sleep soundly while this villain walks their streets.

At length, the police are able to identify two possible witnesses. One is a criminal himself - a mugger who was actually mugging someone in the area while one of the girls was being murdered nearby. The other is a three-year-old boy, brother of a friend of one of the victims, who was with his sister and the victim in the park. How can they hope to extract useful information from such witnesses?

Meanwhile, Martin Beck is haunted by a memory of something that he overheard that he is sure might be connected to the case, but the memory hangs tantalizingly just beyond his reach. Trying to reach it only seems to push it farther away.  

This book - in fact, all the books in this series that I have read so far - portray the police force very realistically. They have only their own humanity to pit against their enemies, those who would commit the most inhuman of crimes. The writers, through their very matter-of-fact, straightforward narrative, make us experience the frustration and horror of the men (and they are all men - this is the '60s, after all) who must try to make sense of utterly senseless crimes in order to find and capture the perpetrator. The result is a very credible story and a thriller that engages the reader and invests our interest in the solution to the crimes. Most of all, we learn to appreciate the perseverance of the police as they struggle to put all the pieces together and find their quarry.

I continue to be very impressed with the writing of Sjowall/Wahloo. Their style is deceptively simple. They use short, declarative sentences. There is no bombastic action. They tell an unadorned story of ordinary people, people that ordinary readers like myself can identify with.

As one begins reading, one may at first think that the story is very slow and that nothing is happening. Then, suddenly, after a few pages, one is caught unawares and is thoroughly enthralled in the tale that is being told. It all just creeps up on you, creeps into the corners of your mind, and you are hooked!

It takes great talent and great restraint, I think, to write like that. I wish I could do it.

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