Wahloo, Per – ‘Murder on the Thirty-First Floor’ (translated by Sarah Death)
Paperback: 224 pages (Dec. 2011) Publisher: Vintage ISBN: 0099554763
Written in 1964, only 16 years after publication of Orwell’s 1984, MURDER ON THE THIRTY-FIRST FLOOR has much in common with its influential predecessor, even to the extent of a central manifesto. Wahloo uses the framework of a (presumed) terrorist threat to blow up a skyscraper (how predictively topical is that?) to write a damning account of a society controlled by the state.
Inspector Jensen is sent to the offices of a prestigious yet initially mysterious corporation because its director has received a letter saying that a bomb will explode at a certain time. Jenson recommends that the building is evacuated quickly, despite the cost to the company in lost revenue. There is no explosion, but Jensen is told by his boss that he has a week to find out, discreetly, who sent the letter. Jensen has never previously met or heard from his boss in all his years as a policeman.
Jensen pursues his task by sending off the paper on which the threat was written for forensic analysis. Eventually, he works out that only a few people could have sent it – people who have left the company, either voluntarily or after being sacked. He spends the rest of the week interviewing the ten suspects, each one of them telling him their background story, cumulatively shedding more and more light on how this society has come to be as it is. Whether Jensen solves the crime and meets his deadline; whether he is eventually influenced by what he hears from the various nonconformists he interviews; what the corporation does for its living; and what is the mystery of the titular 31st floor; I shall leave you to find out by reading the book.
Much of the book is taken up with the author’s determination to evoke a response from the reader to the totalitarian state that he depicts. Sometimes the allegory is a bit heavy-handed. Ordinary people are subject to total control, being fed a constant diet of unstimulating pap via magazines and TV, their only escape being alcoholism, which has become an epidemic the police can barely control. Jensen himself cannot eat a meal because of an inevitable pain in his diaphragm. The birth rate has decreased to levels that mean the population is unsustainable. Perhaps it is because the book was written 48 years ago that the plot mechanics seem somewhat simplistic, or maybe that is part of the satire – whenever he needs anything, Jensen just phones a junior colleague to tell them to obtain certain evidence or to watch people, which all works like clockwork.
Of course, the time of writing means that the entire subsequent revolution of individuals’ control over their own personal communication, via the internet, email and so on, is not addressed – but this does not date the book, rather it provides an interesting perspective for the modern reader on social engineering. I recommend this novel as a fascinating, if cold, historical document (the author went on to write the best crime series ever, in collaboration with his wife Maj Sjowall). My hat is very much off to the translator of this new edition, Sarah Death, for her marvellously naturalistic interpretation which matches the bleak content of the book perfectly.