I met a man who wasn't there.
Summer vacation season is in full swing and Inspector Martin Beck has just arrived in an isolated summer cottage on an island off the Swedish coast. The very next morning a neighbor rows out to advise him that he is wanted on the telephone. He is needed back in Stockholm for a meeting with the Police Chief and the Swedish Foreign office. Beck grudgingly returns for the meeting and is asked to travel to Budapest, Hungary to find a missing journalist. The journalist, Alf Matsson, has gone missing and the tabloid newspaper he works for has pressured the Foreign Office to search for the report. Beck has been asked to `volunteer' for the task. Despite, or perhaps because of, his wife's displeasure (their marriage is not in the best condition) at his departure, Beck accepts the assignment. In short order he is provided with a full set of travel documents, a brief dossier on Matsson, and a ticket for Budapest. The only thing Beck lacks is the first clue as to how to locate Matsson.
As the story progresses we see Beck put together bits and pieces of information as he wanders, seemingly aimlessly, through the picturesque streets of Budapest. Beck is traveling purely as a civilian and soon attracts the attention of the Budapest police force, in particular a detective who may or may not be an ally of Beck. Beck also attracts the attention of what may be either Budapest's underworld or representatives of the Hungarian security forces. For all intents and purposes Beck is a stranger in a strange land.
As with all the other Martin Beck mysteries in this ten-book series (this is the third in the series), "The Man Who Went Up in Smoke" is rich with character-driven narrative. Beck's character and his relationships with his colleagues and his wife are fleshed out as Beck plods along trying to unravel the mystery surrounding Matsson's disappearance. The authors, the husband and wife team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, do a nice job of revealing details in a measured pace along the way. The plot and narrative do fall squarely within the usual police procedural `formula' but that does nothing to take away from the enjoyment of reading the book. Although the reader may find the ending a bit predictable (I didn't) the real enjoyment of the series involves the development of Beck's character. As with many good detective series (Simenon's Maigret comes to mind here) the personality of Beck takes pride of place. He is far from being a super hero, is no Sherlock Holmes (who is?), smokes too much, doesn't eat right, and has some troubles at home. He is appealing because of these flaws not despite them and his dogged determination and his personal involvement in the cases he handles drags the reader right into the story. He works at his job and doesn't and cannot rely on flashes of genius to solve a crime.
The Beck series has been an entertaining one. I recommend starting with the first book in the series (Roseanna) and working your way in chronological order. My only fault with the publisher, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (a division of Random House) is that they do not identify the order of books in the series. Despite that minor quibble any reader who enjoys Simenon, Eric Ambler, or Boris Akunin will enjoy the Martin Beck detective mysteries. Recommended. L. Fleisig.