Monday, February 21, 2011

The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009
originally published as Den Skrattande polisen, 1968
211 pp.
translated by Alan Blair

After finishing The Man on the Balcony, I decided to go back for more of Martin Beck and his colleagues, and I'm so happy I did. The Laughing Policeman is the fourth in the Martin Beck series, and so far it is my favorite from this writing duo.

While the police in Stockholm are busy at the American Embassy where a protest against the Vietnam War has turned very ugly, patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson, the Keystone Cop-ish police officers who just so happened to have inadvertently solved the case in The Man on the Balcony, are  just biding their time until their shift is over.  Crossing from the municipality of Solna into Stockholm, they're flagged down by a man walking a dog who reports an accident. The two drive on over and discover a doubledecker bus with lights on and doors open off the road. Inside the bus are several dead bodies, all gunned down in their seats, and the scene looks like a massacre.  The homicide squad headed by Martin Beck arrives and discovers that one of their own is dead on the bus -- a young police inspector named Ake Stenstrom.  There are very little clues on the scene, thanks to Kvant and Kristiansson, and as far as motive, until Beck and his men can go through the list of victims, it is not readily apparent. To bring the gunman to justice and close the case Beck and his team will have to put in long hours and examine the lives of all of the dead.  To discover why this happened, the most important fact they need to discern is the identity of the intended target, not a simple task in the least.

Sjöwall and Perlöö's plotting and storyline are not the only reasons this book and the series work so well.  The authors also continue to develop their characters'  personalities so that the people in the Stockholm homicide squad become more and more familiar to the reader as time progresses.  Those two factors, along with their ability to evoke what they consider the social ills and the events of the time period make these short novels so compelling. In the space of only 211 pages the authors manage to set up the plot, detail the often-frustrating investigation, catch up on what's going on with Beck, Kollberg and the other main players, and wrap things up in a more than satisfying conclusion.  They keep the superfluous prose away, giving the reader only what's needed to keep the story going. There are no torrid love affairs, no in-depth soul searching or major subplots to sidetrack the reader --  Sjöwall and Perlöö are probably among the best crime writers in terms of their focus on the crime at hand, while still managing to continue the growth of their beloved characters.  The time frame is well established through their use of current events like the Vietnam War protests and American serial killers of the time (especially Charles Whitman and the U of Texas shootings).  They also have this ability to make the reader laugh in the midst of terrible crimes; here they go on about psychologists and profiling of serial killers in a discussion that was priceless.

I'd definitely recommend this book and the entire series to anyone who wants to read something intelligent in the realm of crime fiction, and to readers of Scandinavian crime fiction in particular.  You can't read just the current popular authors and feel like you have experienced the best that the Nordic countries have to offer -- this series is a no miss, for sure.

...whose idea was it to make a movie of this book and set it in San Francisco????

crime fiction from Sweden

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