THE MAN ON THE BALCONY is the third of Sojwall and Wahloo's ten novels featuring Martin Beck and his Stockholm police colleagues. It is a lean, compelling novel, told with simplicity and power. One hot summer, a man sits on his balcony, quietly observing the activity on the long street below. Based on a spare description of his ordinary domestic actions, an atmosphere of menace begins to build.
The action shifts to a local park, where police are on the look-out for a mugger, a young couple is sneaking out from a family gathering, and children are playing. An old lady is attacked and robbed despite the police vigilance, but this is not the worst thing to happen in the park that day. Later, the body of a child is found.
The painstaking investigation of Martin Beck and his colleagues: overworked, underpaid, yet stoical and determined to put the killer behind bars, takes up the rest of the novel. No detail is too small for Martin to follow up or have followed up, for his experience tells him that by these means the killer will be found.
A breakthrough comes when a young woman identifies the mugger. The interrogation of the suspect is nail-bitingly tense, as the unpopular and unimaginative Gunvald Larsson is the only policeman to whom the suspect will talk. Although Larsson does not make a breakthrough, it is his actions that provide Martin with the flash of deduction that will eventually lead to the murderer – but only after several patrolmen and junior officers have individually gathered small pieces of relevant information.
The book is a masterpiece: the society formed by the people of the town and the police force is almost a single character – insignificant events are interconnected so that when pieced together into a dovetailed whole, everything makes perfect sense in retrospect.
There are no dramatic set-pieces, and although we catch glimpses of the personal lives of the policemen, most of them strained to a greater or lesser degree by the impact of their work, there are no larger-than-life heroes – the solution to the mystery is a collaborative and painstaking effort. All these elements, together with a natural and sympathetic translation by Alan Blair, combine to make a compelling whole, and increase the appetite for the next installment.
The "postscript" is an analysis by Richard Shepherd of the book in the context of the "summer of love" in which it is set (1967), together with his interview with Maj Sjowall. There is also a very good introduction by Andrew Taylor, who describes vividly his own enjoyment of the novels when young, and his role in their current incarnation in this excellent HarperPerennial series.