The Man Who Went Up In Smoke

The Man Who Went Up In Smoke is Sjowall and Wahloo’s second book in the ten-volume Martin Beck series, republished with introductions by contemporary crime writers (this one is by Val McDermid).  As with all the books in the series, it is both a crime novel and a vehicle for social commentary. The novel concerns the disappearance of a Swedish journalist in Budapest and indeed most of the novel takes place in the Hungarian capital. Bearing in mind the authors were both committed Marxists, the choice of setting is an interesting one, especially as the book was first published in 1966, in the middle of the Cold War and two years before the Prague Spring. The first English translation appeared in 1969, where its depiction of Budapest would have had different connotations. We are, perhaps, so used to portrayals of Eastern Bloc cities as being cold, grey, soulless and oppressive, that it comes as a bit of a suprise when Budapest is shown to be a rather pleasant, sunny, culturally rich city, full of citizens, not cowed in oppression, but enjoying a glorious summer with outdoor bathing and drinking in pleasant pavement cafes. Yet Sjowall and Wahloo do not go over the top in their enthusiasm. They are not depicting a Utopia here, but a city like any other European capital. And, of course, they are quite aware what they are doing – after arriving in Budapest, Beck finds himself being followed by a shady looking Hungarian policeman. We are led to think the worst, drawing on our knowledge of Cold War spy novels and ruthless, cunning communist agents, only to have our prejudices exposed when he turns out to be a rather pleasant and helpful colleague, who teams up with Beck to solve the mystery. Of course, it’s all great stuff!

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