Murder on the Thirty-First Floor

Per Wahlöö (1926-75) is best remembered now for the ten political crime thrillers, centred on the character of Martin Beck, which he co-wrote with Maj Sjöwall between 1965 and 1975. Wahlöö was also the author of several other novels, written both before and after beginning his partnership with Sjöwall. One of these was 1966’s Murder on the Thirty-First Floor, published by Vintage in 2011 in a translation by Sarah Death; I’ve just read it and feel the need to get some thoughts down. Although I didn’t ultimately like the book very much, it got under my skin in an odd way. I was born in the 1960s, and Wahlöö seems to have been writing from a world that I recognise, and with radical commitments that I intuitively share. But the book brought it home to me that that world is gone for good – and I can’t help wondering how this reflects on those commitments.

More on that in a moment. (Warning: ends up being about Charles I’s headCorbynism.) First, some thoughts on the book itself. There will be spoilers; if you’re keen to read the book on the basis of what you’ve read so far, you’d better bookmark this and come back later.

The two key points about Murder on the Thirty-First Floor are that it’s formally a police procedural, and that it’s set in a dystopian near future. As police procedurals go it’s fairly basic, with none of the “wait, our witness was lying!/gave us a false name!/was already dead!” twistiness that is the stock in trade of contemporary TV crime drama. At the beginning of Murder, an anonymous bomb threat is sent to a large magazine publisher, stating that the bomb – which turns out not to exist – is revenge for a murder committed by the company. The chief of police, intervening personally, gives Inspector Jensen a week to solve the case; Jensen identifies nine likely suspects, all of whom are recent and potentially discontented ex-employees; he then goes about interviewing them one by one. And, er, that’s it. (He doesn’t even get to the bottom of the list.)

When Jensen isn’t talking to suspects or brooding in his flat, he spends a lot of time at the publishing house, which occupies the whole of a thirty-storey building and is portrayed with a vivid oddness. Wherever Jensen goes in the building he is followed at a discreet distance by a man in a grey suit, who keeps to his post even when Jensen is putting in a fourteen-hour day; Jensen speaks to him once, but cannot find out who is having him followed, or why. (Neither do we.) After the bomb threat is received, Jensen prevails on the director of publishing to have the building evacuated and overhears him on the phone: “Yes, that’s everyone alerted. Well, apart from the people on the thirty-first floor – they’d never get out in time, though…” When Jensen takes him up on this, the director reassures him that everyone is being evacuated, and in any case everybody knows that it’s a thirty-storey building; if he had said anything about a thirty-first floor, it must have been a slip of the tongue. When Jensen asks the director to request a security pass for him, the director types a few words before giving up and asking his secretary to do it; Jensen fishes the paper he had used out of the bin and discovers that the director of publishing is dyslexic.

So far, so bizarre. The narrative takes on a different quality when Jensen begins his investigations. Each of the first five people he speaks to is eager to talk, even relieved that the police have finally arrived – and none of them has anything to do with the case. One suspect has heard about the case and offers a full confession, although Jensen rapidly establishes that it’s false; the others all assume that Jensen is there to investigate their grievance against the company, and/or to arrest them for what they’ve done in retaliation. Much of the book is taken up with the voluble confessions, self-exonerations and counter-accusations offered by the six suspects Jensen interviews over that week (the sixth is the guilty man, but he’s just as chatty as all the others). Through their accounts, and through Jensen’s day-to-day life, we get a picture of the country where the action is taking place – and the period when it’s taking place.

We’re in Sweden, but we’re not in 1966. We’re in a country governed by an Accord – between private business and trade unions, between Left and Right – which has been in place so long that it’s become unquestionable, and which assures prosperity and stability for all. Almost all the old problems of developed societies – healthcare, education, housing – have long since been solved. There are jobs for all, requiring minimal skill owing to advances in automation, and living space for all in modern tower blocks designed on uniform lines. Public transport has been run down – the government expects everyone to have a car – and older housing estates have been left, literally, to rot; there’s little or no outright poverty, though.

The cost of all this is a kind of managed uniformity. Government-owned cafés, serving a standardised (and staggeringly carb-heavy) lunch, have crowded out independent outlets, to the point where the only alternative is snacks from vending machines. When a plane passes overhead, Jensen muses that foreign holidays are available for all, as long as they book a package deal where everything is controlled to the last detail. As a result of this pervasive social management, people have lost interest in politics, and in much else: the crime rate is down, the birth rate is falling, and Jensen comments at one point that even pornography seems to have gone out of fashion. On the other hand, alcohol consumption has soared, all the more so since the government criminalised alcohol abuse (in private as well as in public); uniformed police spend most of their time arresting and detaining drunks, who are treated with a capricious mixture of heavily medicalised care and old-school brutality. Suicide is also at new heights, and takes new forms: people crash their cars on purpose, or batter themselves to death against the walls of police cells. I think all this (even the last example) is intended to be taken straight; Jensen is old, tired and dyspeptic (literally; the pain in his side is a constant companion), but I didn’t get a sense that he was intended to be an unreliable witness.

Nowhere is the managed uniformity of this society more prominent than in the magazine business. We discover that the publishing house that received the bomb threat is not so much a magazine publisher as the magazine publisher: they produce a total of 144 magazines and comics as well as owning the main distribution business. In an early scene Jensen works his way through the latest issue of all 144, ostensibly in search of clues to the motivation of the anonymous criminal. He is struck both by the range and variety of the magazines – there is something for everyone, or at least for every identifiable niche market – and by their relentless blandness: whatever the topic, it is dealt with in mild, conciliatory terms, never hinting that there might be serious problems in the world, that any public figure’s motivations might not be of the best, or that social conflict (or any cause for conflict) might even exist. This isn’t even the manufacture of consent – there’s nothing tangible for the reader to consent to: if anything, it’s the manufacture of apathy.

The suspects Jensen interviews, all ex-employees of the company, tell horror stories of how it works; they’re bloodless, bureaucratic horror stories, but they have human costs for all that. Relentlessly trivialising and remorselessly upbeat, the magazines favour writers with low intelligence and few scruples, and gradually crush everyone else; writers hit the bottle, burn out, leave publishing altogether. A representative example is the journalist who came to the company from an established left-wing magazine, which had been bought out by the publisher in agreement with union and party bosses. Initially seen as a potential problem – and at one point threatened with transfer to the 31st floor – he eventually adjusted to turning out the required pablum. His breaking-point came when, tasked with writing about a mediocre pop star’s foreign tour, he took the opportunity to write a profile of the country the star was touring – its political institutions, its social conflicts, its human rights record. He was promptly diagnosed as ‘burnt out’ and sacked on medical grounds. When Jensen meets him he’s starting to look for a job that doesn’t involve writing: “It might not be very easy, because we journalists don’t really know how to do anything. But it’ll be okay; these days, nobody knows how to do anything”.

As for that 31st floor, it turns out that there are only 30 storeys – but there’s also a kind of attic level, sandwiched between the top floor and the roof terrace, which is where the ‘special department’ operates. Its purpose is revealed to Jensen by the last person he interviews, a radical arts journalist; he had been recruited on the promise of being able to produce an independent and critical monthly magazine, light years removed from those 144 publications in style and content. And this he and his team have in fact done – but there are problems. One is the system of payment: an elaborate bonded-labour scheme whereby journalists are contractually entitled to a fixed salary but are actually paid generous piece rates, meaning in practice that they owe the company the difference between the two – a debt that builds up the longer they’re employed. The other, even bigger problem is that the independent magazine has never yet appeared: first there was an internal pilot issue, then the launch issue had to be cancelled, then the wrong paper was ordered, then there were problems with the distribution network… The ‘special department’ keeps going, month after month, but it produces nothing but dummy issues and there’s no realistic prospect of that changing.

The publishing company destroys competitors when it can; when it can’t do that, it absorbs them; and when it can’t do that, it brings potential disruptive influences in-house, gives them free rein and simply prevents them from ever being heard. The journalist Jensen interviews has left the company, but only thanks to a freak occurrence, a legacy which enabled him to buy himself out. It was he who had sent the hoax bomb threat; as the book ends, seven days later, the company has received a second threat and evacuated the premises, and Jensen is waiting to hear whether this time the building will blow up – 31st floor and all.

As for the eponymous murder on the 31st floor, which provided the motivation for the bomb threats and perhaps for an actual bombing: you’ve just read about it. It wasn’t the murder of a person, but of an independent magazine, of a critical voice; it was the murder of freedom of speech!

(Hey ho. As I said, it’s formally a police procedural.)

Viewed from 2022, there’s a lot that’s quaint about this dystopian near-future: the idea that print magazines play a key role in the enforcement of social consensus, for example, and the hopeful corollary that an independent and critical print magazine can play a vital role in unsettling that consensus. Independent and critical print magazines are something I’ve valued very highly, in their time – I speak as a former contributor to Casablanca and Lobster, and a former subscriber to Magonia and Fatuous Times – but I’m bound to admit that they have very largely had their time.

This is a relatively trivial point, though, particularly where the 144-strong orchestra of periodical blandness is concerned; a contemporary adaptation would just shift the whole thing online (although it might have more difficulty identifying an online counterpart to those radical political and cultural magazines). The problems with Wahlöö’s dystopia, viewed from 2022, run much deeper. Put it this way: what’s the worst that can happen to these people? This society does have a dark side – its drunk tanks are overflowing and many of its car accidents are suicide attempts – but it’s fundamentally a society of great stability and material comfort. Employees of the magazine company are driven crazy by the boredom of a comfortable and well-paid job, to the point where they’re forced to consider leaving to find a different comfortable and well-paid job. The toilers on the 31st floor work under doubly hellish conditions, producing a magazine that they can be proud of in the tormenting awareness that it will never appear, while being turned into indentured labourers by being overpaid. As a former freelance journalist – most of whose work is now impossible to find – I’m bound to say, nice dystopia if you can get it.

In short, this is an abundant dystopia: it’s not only a society of great stability and material comfort, it’s a society of crushing stability and stifling material comfort. At one point Jensen eats a large and unattractive-sounding meal in a government café, only to vomit it back up almost immediately afterwards, in what seems like a symbolic rejection of what’s being served up to him: like the broader society, the café offers all the sustenance anyone could possibly need, and nothing to make it attractive or enjoyable. And it all sounds horrible, to be fair – but can anyone think that this is the kind of dystopia we need to worry about now?

Perhaps even more fundamentally, this is a social-democratic dystopia: a society where a truce between capital and a left-wing government – of the kind represented in Britain by the 1945 Labour government – has hardened into a self-perpetuating stasis: no possibility of a restoration of free-market capitalism, but equally no possibility of progress towards democratic socialism. Again, this is not a problem we face now, to put it mildly. Perhaps a book like this could have been written in Britain in 1966, but certainly not in 1986 – or any time after 1979.

I’m old enough to remember the “social democracy: is that all there is?” strain of radicalism. I was 16 when the Clash recorded “Career Opportunities”; it was a few years after that that I was on the dole myself, but I remember thinking it outrageous that the government should be pushing me into menial work instead of letting me take my time finding the right job. “Every job they offer you’s to keep you out the dock” – dead right, Joe! Viewed from 2022 it’s harder to sympathise – not least because it’s hard to imagine a government that not only cares about stopping kids becoming criminals but is willing to sort out full-time jobs for them.

In fact, a government like that would be a huge advance on anything we’ve had since 2010 – and a pretty big step forward from anything likely to be advocated by the Labour Party in its current state. And this applies more generally. There are unavoidable similarities between the settled achievements of mild social democracy in 60s/70s Britain, on one hand, and the earthshaking, visionary demands of the Corbyn movement on the other. Nationalised rail and utilities, in-house council services, state education for (nearly) all, a fully public NHS and a functioning social security safety net were just some of the things that we all took for granted back then, even under Conservative governments. Indeed, a large part of what gave Corbynism its unsettling, inspirational edge was the sense that, despite being off the political agenda, all these things were possible. And nobody knew that better than those of us who could remember them from the first time round. (We didn’t have broadband, admittedly, but if we had it would certainly have been nationalised.) So Wahlöö’s book leaves me with an uneasy sense that, in 2015-19, many of us on the Left were campaigning for something that – if it had ever been realised – we would have found bland, stifling, even oppressive.

Which is odd. What makes Wahlöö’s dystopia particularly stifling is the aimlessness, complacency and despair variously displayed by Jensen’s suspects, all of them disaffected: none of them really rebels against their condition, has the determination to bring change about or feels any hope that things can be different. And that coherent rebellious spirit – resistance, determination and hope – is just what Corbynism encapsulated. Corbynism wasn’t a movement for the restoration of adequate levels of security and comfort; it drew some of its power from the shared recognition that current levels of security and comfort aren’t adequate, but that’s a bit different. And yet, that was the programme; that was what we were trying to achieve. And there isn’t really anything inspirational about in-house council services or state education for all – although they are very good ideas.

Perhaps it’s natural to find your own political achievements inadequate – roll over John Ball and tell William Morris the news – although it’s more usual to make that discovery after achieving them. Alternatively – and I think this is a bit closer – perhaps the real dream of Corbynism was establishing a society in which genuinely radical demands could be raised, given that merely keeping everyone alive and healthy was no longer an issue: think Fully Automated Luxury Communism, or think of Guy Debord’s casual comment that after the revolution “the true divisions and endless clashes of historical life” could begin.

But let’s not get carried away. Or rather, let’s recognise that getting carried away – grafting revolutionary visions onto something much less ambitious and much more banal – is precisely the problem. I’m suggesting that Corbynism was a combination of two different projects, one of them far more fully developed than the other. On one hand Corbynism was, simply, the latest iteration of the Campaign Group Labour left, with a programme that was broadly the latest iteration of Campaign Group Labour leftism and tactical perspectives largely confined to battles within the party – battles which were approached from an assumed position of weakness and with the associated caution. On the other hand, Corbynism was an amorphous, many-headed, grassroots movement aiming to change the world – no less – with great hope and determination but without much focus.

What should have bridged the gap – what should have given the movement structure and energised the apparat, precisely by connecting one to the other – was democracy. Item 1 on the agenda should have been the recognition that, as a movement, we weren’t there yet – and we were only going to get there through the democratic renewal of the Labour Party and other labour movement institutions. Unfortunately this would quite quickly have necessitated a full-on battle with the party Right, taking place at least partly outside official party structures. (Hundreds of people – literally – joined my local party between 2015 and 2017. Who had all those people’s contact details; who had the ability to mobilise those people (or not)? It wasn’t the Left.) And both Corbyn’s weak position within the PLP and (less forgiveably) the Campaign Group’s learned defensiveness ruled this out.

As a result, what did bond the old-school Labour left element and the wider movement was the programme – and small and fairly uninteresting demands like free broadband were temporarily imbued with excitement because of that, because they were concrete proposals that our movement was putting forward: this was how we were going to change the world! They weren’t bad proposals, but they were in some cases weirdly unambitious, at least by the standards of the 1970s(!); if the Labour programme of 2017-19 had come anywhere near realisation, it would have needed to be remade into something more democratically responsive, just like the party itself.

I mourn the loss of that massive movement of rebellious hope and determination – I grieve for it, if I’m honest; there’s a place in my heart where it’s still 13th December 2019. (As I said on Twitter recently, after three years perhaps I should have moved on – but then, after my Dad died I didn’t have people telling me “your Dad’s dead and good riddance” on a daily basis.) I don’t believe that movement’s vanished without a trace (it never vanishes without a trace), but at the very least that energy’s being channelled into more diffuse and less visible forms.

Perhaps we’ll see something like the Corbyn movement again – something that big, that confident, that hopeful – but if and when we do, we need to think differently; to think in terms of form rather than content, process rather than programme. Bluntly, another time, we need to be thinking in terms of the democratisation of society from the outset, starting with the Labour Party – or if necessary starting without the Labour Party.

 

 

 

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