Murder on the Thirty-First Floor Paperback – 15 Dec 2011
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"Something quite special and fascinating: a use of the detective form to present a brooding and biting forecast of the future - or of a possible future" (New York Times Book Review)
"The godfather of Scandinavian crime fiction" (Jo Nesbo)
"[Sarah Death's translation] seems to catch the bleakness perfectly... Wahlöö's solo work deserves to be considered in the same context as Zamyatin, Capek, Orwell, or Durrenmatt...high praise indeed." (Michael Carlson Irresistible Targets)
"[His novels] are economical and move with great pace... [They] have been restored to the canon of European crime fiction in English. Don't miss" (Bob Cornwell Crime Time)
"Wahlöö would prompt many writers to use crime fiction as a way of holding a mirror to social evils. Here the investigation is tense, the murder shocking, but at heart the crime is against journalism and intellectual freedom" (Public Sphere)
A chilling dystopian classic crime story from the godfather of Scandinavian crime fiction.See all Product description
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The author was an avowed Marxist and this is very evident in a story that introduces Chief Inspector Jensen of the Sixteenth Police District, part of a force in an unnamed city some years in the future [it is easy to forget that the novel was written over 50 years ago].
Birth rates have declined, crime has been reduced as a result of the population being drugged by anodyne television programmes and magazines and drunkenness is now at epidemic proportions with overnight holding cells being hosed down each morning [a third arrest would result in immediate admittance to an alcohol abuse clinic]. Many people live in high rise flats that are left to decay and, once they are longer habitable, bulldozed and left to nature.
The opening of the book is dramatic, the owners of a commercial skyscraper having received an anonymous threat that it will be blown up to avenge an unspecified murder. The building houses a major corporation, The Concern, that is responsible for publishing ‘144 magazine titles, selling 21,326,453 copies weekly, plus 9 million newspapers’. These ‘are aimed at the family, at being something they can all read, at not creating aggression, dissatisfaction or anxiety. They satisfy ordinary people's natural need for escapism’. As Jensen begins his investigation it is made clear that it must be completed very speedily and in total secrecy. In all his years as a policeman, Jensen has never met his Chief of Police, who gives him seven days to wrap up the case. This allows the author to make play with the decreasing time remaining.
Jensen talks to the senior managers and learns of their motivation and their myriad connections to high-level politicians, ministry officials and the police. His attention is drawn to the thirty-first floor, the summit of the building, which houses the secretive ‘Special Department’.
Jensen is a terse figure, ever ready to threaten colleagues if their behavior deviates from the regulations which define his life, humourless and suffering severe stomach problems – not unconnected with the food that is available. This comprises three standard dishes of the day created by a special division of the Ministry for Public Health, prepared centrally by a national food industry syndicate. He controls his pain with honey and water.
As with any novel set in the future it is fascinating to see the author’s imagination. Typewriters, rather than computers and word processors, abound, transport is still by car [although their seats are detachable to allow picnicking], the masses look very much alike, being differentiated by the colour, size and shape of their vehicles. Everyday life is controlled by a national Accord which determines every aspect of life. Identity cards contain information about the individual, their social standing and infringements of the law. Of course, neither the internet nor social media, which undermine the power of a monolithic state, are envisaged.
The main part of the book involves Jensen questioning a number of disgruntled ex-employees from the publishing company who he has been able to identify as potential threat makers. These contrast the almost monosyllabic policeman and loquacious interviewees whose answers veer far from the topic of the investigation but allow the reader to better appreciate the company’s operation and understand life in this totalitarian state. The Marxist polemic is in full flow by the time that the inspector identifies the culprit.
The detail that Wahlöö provides – about Jensen’s journeys, his office, food and drink, sleeping habits – are presented in the minute detail expected in a Stasi surveillance file. One unintentional element of humor comes when the death of an employee crushed by a lift is described as an ‘open and shut case’.
Wahlöö published a sequel, The Steel Spring, which describes the world round Jensen a few years later. This too has been translated by Death. It is well worthwhile reading these two books alongside the Martin Beck series that offers less radical reflections on the direction that Swedish society was moving.
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