The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Laughing Policeman (Martin Beck #4)The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1971 and it is easy to see why. It is a mesmerizing tale right from the first sentence, maybe the best in this series that I have read so far.

As with the three earlier books, this one is deceptively simple in construction. It is told in laconic "this happened, then this happened" fashion, and it is hard for an amateur such as myself to deconstruct just why it is so good. But if the object of a writer is to entertain and hold the interest of the reader, this book - and this series - succeeds admirably.

Once again we have the ever-morose and ever-dyspeptic Swedish policeman Martin Beck, now risen to the rank of superintendent, along with his cohorts in the Stockholm police department, trying to solve an unprecedented crime where clues are few. A city bus has been found abandoned on the streets with everyone on board, including the driver, dead. They have all been shot with a submachine gun.

One of those killed, it turns out, was one of Martin Beck's men, the youngest detective in his squad, Ake Stenstrom. There had been no murders in Stockholm recently and all the detectives were working on old cases, but no one knew exactly which one Ake was working on. The question, of course, is whether he was the unfortunate victim of a random mass murder - a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time - or was his re-investigation of the old case somehow tied to his death? Was the murder of all those other people simply window dressing, a red herring to misdirect the police's interest?

From this point, the investigation proceeds in classic police procedural fashion. Martin Beck and his compatriots are convinced that their colleague's presence on the bus was no coincidence and that his was the death which the murderer sought. Trying to discover what might have been stirred up by his investigation, they retrace his steps and look again at old clues to a crime that has been long thought to be unsolvable.

The reader can be forgiven for wondering whether Sjowall/Wahloo had any affection at all for poor Martin Beck. They certainly don't give him any especially sympathetic characteristics or any redeeming qualities. Except maybe one. We get a hint here of his care and concern for his two children, especially for his teenage daughter with whom he seems to enjoy a certain rapport. Perhaps more will be developed in later books regarding his family relationships in order to give his moroseness and dyspepsia more context. Certainly what we know of his wife indicates that he may have good reason to be morose.

As ever, Martin Beck is not the hero or even the main focus of The Laughing Policeman. Indeed there is little reason for any of the policemen in this tale to crack a smile even, but we get to know and understand each member of the squad just a little better through their participation in this investigation. Each of them doggedly plays his part in pursuing the killer even when they can really see no reason for the line of inquiry they are following. In the end, each of them will have contributed a piece of the puzzle. No one is a standout. It is, in every sense of the word, a team effort.

One of the reasons that I like this series so much is the sly humor which is so much a part of the narrative. It's hard to give a specific example of this; it is a situation where "you had to be there." But, trust me, there is humor here, as there are clear-eyed observations of Swedish society in the 1960s. Indeed, in many ways, this isn't so much a police procedural as a sociological study.

And, yes, finally, Martin Beck does laugh, for the first time that I remember in this series. It comes on the very last page, the last paragraph. It's worth reading that far to see it.        

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