Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Laughing Policeman - Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

   1970; 211 pages.  New Authors? : No.  Book 4 (out of 10) in the Martin Beck series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery, Police Procedural; Swedish Noir.  Laurels : Winner of the 1971 Edgar Award for “Best Novel”; made into a 1973 movie (starring Walter Matthau and set in California instead of Sweden).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    On a cold, wintry night in Stockholm, Sweden, a gunman spreads death and destruction by machine-gunning every rider on a city bus.  The police happen onto the scene rather quickly, and find eight people dead, another one dying, and the killer gone.

    The crime becomes personal for Chief Inspector Martin Beck when he learns that one of his detectives was among the dead.  It is a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, since the detective was off work at the time.

    It comes as a surprise, then, when the detective’s widow insists that he’d been working that night.  And the ill-fated bus was not on a route that would lead to or from their home.  This begs two questions.

    Is it possible that the killing was a premeditated murder instead of wanton violence by some crazed psychopath?

    And why was Beck’s detective on that late-night bus?

What’s To Like...
    The Laughing Policeman is another fine police procedural by the Swedish husband/wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  Martin Beck and his team of detectives start with almost zero clues and motives as they probe into every victim’s life and  doggedly track down every lead that crops up.  A motive can be found for the majority of those killed – drug usage, drug pushing, ties to crime, an affair, etc. – and the investigators have varying opinions as to which is the most likely.

    As always, there is a nice “feel” to the 1967 Sweden setting, and Sjowall and Wahloo deftly weave some social commentary into the story.  There are demonstrations against the Vietnam war; some “iffy” actions by the detectives with regards to warrantless entry and rounding up suspects; and questionable priorities in the fight against crime.

    The banter among the team of detectives infuses both wit and insight into the book.  I was impressed by the way a pair of Keystone Kops, Kvant and Kristiansson, were smoothly incorporated into the storyline, thus providing a bit of comic relief.

    The title has nothing to do with the crime-solving, so don’t get hung up on that.  This is a standalone novel, and at 211 pages, a quick, page-turning read.  The entire series is available through my local library’s e-book database, although I read the paperback edition.  Sadly, the series is limited to 10 books due to Wahloo’s untimely death in 1975.

Kewlest New Word ...
Jeremiad (n.) : a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.

    “I read somewhere that out of every thousand Americans, one or two are potential mass murderers,” Kollberg said.  “Though don’t ask me how they arrived at that conclusion.”
    “Market research,” Gunvald Larsson said.  “It’s another American specialty.  They go around from house to house asking people if they could imagine themselves committing a mass murder.  Two in a thousand say, ‘Oh yes, that would be nice.’”  (pg. 93)

    Most of the people who usually busied themselves with crime had been forced into inactivity during the past month.  So long as the police were on the alert, it was best to lie low.  There was not a thief, junkie, pusher, mugger, bootlegger or pimp in the whole of Stockholm who didn’t hope that the mass murderer would soon be seized so that the police could once more devote their time to Vietnam demonstrations and parking offenders and they themselves could get back to work.  (pg. 166)

“When the burglar wakes up at night and hears a rattling in his cellar, what does he do?  Calls the police, of course.”  (pg. 101 )
    Two things stand out in The Laughing Policeman.  The first is the meticulous and masterful construction of the murder-mystery itself.  Lesser writers either make the clues blatantly obvious or completely arbitrary.  Not so here.  For instance, our lone survivor emerges briefly from his coma, utters a couple cryptic words, and dies.  So deciphering them must be the key, right?  Not really.  They give supporting evidence to a theory, and that’s about it.  Which, probability-wise, is about what you’d expect if this were a real-world murder investigation.

    The second is the rich character development, particularly of the members of the homicide detective squad.  The emphasis here is on the whole team as they all share the enormous task of pursuing all leads.  Martin Beck may be the team captain, but that just means he gets to hand out assignments and have his name attached to the series.  But any of his detectives might get the “break” and/or be the one who finally solves the crime.  This means the reader, along with Beck, must weigh the opinions and research of all the detectives in order to solve the crime.

    9 StarsThe Laughing Policeman is a superb police procedural, but that can also be said of the three other books in this series that I’ve read.  I also enjoy another Swedish author, Henning Mankell, and his police procedural Kurt Wallender series.  But it was Sjowall and Wahloo that blazed the trail.

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