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the laughing policeman

7 august 2010

There's nothing funny about The Laughing Policeman, the procedural by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that first appeared in English translation in 1970. Our heroes in the Stockholm CID are all having a pretty bad decade. Martin Beck is sleeping on the couch, dreading conversations with his wife. Kollberg's much newer marriage is already spiceless. Melander is laconic, Larsson belligerent, Rönn pusillanimous. And young Åke Stenström is having the worst winter of all: he's gone and gotten himself killed by a mass murderer who's slaughtered a busful of passengers before disappearing into thin air.

The solution of the mystery is not entirely plausible, but as can happen in the most felicitous detective novels, it's all the more evocative for its implausibility. The Laughing Policeman asks us to accept that a man with a submachine gun has killed all nine people on a bus, on an undeserted city street, and then vanished. I don't think many things like that have ever happened. Even the detectives admit that things like that don't happen. They adduce Harold Unruh, Charles Whitman, and other notorious mass shooters, who tended to be killed, commit suicide, or be easily apprehended: killing rampantly in an urban area doesn't permit much stealth. (Nobody even seems to have heard the crime.)

Yet amid the gloom of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's Sweden, the bus murder seems to stand for the decay of civilization, the naturalizing of atrocity. As so often in Scandinavian krimis, the refrain is "this kind of thing doesn't happen in Sweden." Perhaps it still doesn't. But it happens in Swedish books, passim, and it represents a peculiar Swedish anxiety.

In another very Swedish move, the key to the bus mystery is found in a very cold case. For weeks Beck and his men have no idea why the collection of people on the bus met their death. Their only clue is that Åke Stenström doesn't seem to have been on the bus by chance. Stenström's girlfriend Åsa Torell, young and nubile, fascinates the jaded Kollberg, and reveals to him that Stenström had been behaving very oddly before his death.

I don't want to inject too much spoilage into a review of a crime novel, even a 40-year-old crime novel. But suffice to say that Stenström has been trying to solve the coldest of cases, a Black-Dahlia-like killing from long ago that would make the reputation of any Swedish sleuth forever. The present must be read through the past, as in so many of the Scandinavian mysteries that have set the gold standard for world crime fiction since the heyday of Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

Aside from topical references to LBJ, Ronald Reagan, and the Vietnam War – and aside, naturally, from the lack of cell phones and desktop computers – the settings, characters, and dialogue of The Laughing Policeman haven't dated a bit. In fact, the reliance of Martin Beck and his men on face-to-face interviews makes the Sjöwall-Wahlöö books fairly timeless. Since they don't depend on technologies or paraphernalia (staples of crime stories ever since Sherlock Holmes, or even "The Purloined Letter," really), they have to get by on psychology. And Sjöwall and Wahlöö understood people better than most writers of any sort of fiction.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö. The Laughing Policeman. [Den skrattende polisen, 1968.] Trans. Alan Blair. New York: Pantheon, 1970.