The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

>> Monday, April 14, 2008

TITLE: The Laughing Policeman
AUTHOR: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

PAGES: 216

SETTING: 1960's Stockholm, Sweden
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 4th in the Martin Beck series

REASON FOR READING: I can pinpoint this one quite well. I read a NY Times review a while back (a long while back, 5 or 6 years at least) which mentioned this series, and I was intrigued by the idea of mysteries set in the Sweden of a couple of decades ago (I've always had a fascination with Sweden, for some strange reason). I even ordered the first one, Roseanna. I never did read it (it's still in the huge TBR pile back in Uruguay), but the names of the authors stuck in my head, and when I saw this one in the library, I checked it out.

In this classic police procedural, the ever-dyspeptic Martin Beck has nothing to be amused about, even though it's Christmastime. Åke Stenstrom, a young detective in Beck's squad, has just been killed in an unprecedented mass murder aboard a Stockholm city bus. Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did he push a murderer too far in his efforts to make a name for himself on the force? Realizing that Stenstrom's presence on the bus was no mere coincidence, his compatriots retrace his steps and chase years-old clues to a crime long thought unsolvable.
THE PLOT: The summary above is quite decent, so I'll just skip this.

MY THOUGHTS: I very much enjoyed this book. It was quite a change from the mysteries I usually read, and not just because of the setting.

The main thing was that I'm used to the lone detective going after the truth. Even when it's a police investigation and there's a whole team working on the case (à la JD Robb's In Death series), there's a clear leader who's the one to make the breakthrough deductions and get to the bottom of things.

Here, Beck is supposed to be the main character, but this is very much an ensemble cast story. I didn't see him particularly "lead" the investigation. They all lead it. Each senior cop takes his own line of investigation and obsesses over it. In the end, it all comes together and the work of each of them is crucial to getting to the solution.

And it was a good solution, too, one that tied up all the threads in a neat and interesting way.

The setting was also a plus. You could almost consider this a historical mystery, I suppose, as 1968 is already 40 years ago. It's not just a matter of years, but that things have changed so much since then, especially the way police would go about an investigation. It's not just technology; the knowledge of the psychology of certain behaviours (mass murders, sexual crimes) has become much more sophisticated. Some of the police's speculations about these things were su unsubtle as to be primitive. This didn't bother me at all, just gave me more of a feeling for the time.

On the whole, while Sjowall and Wahloo (who were writing a contemporary mystery, remember) don't set out to do social commentary, the book is, nonetheless, a fascinating window into Stockholm and Swedish culture at that time. There's a distinct sense of place and a clear portrayal of the sensibilities. This is a place where everyone smokes everywhere (funny how that kind of thing often seems the most obtrusive for us modern readers) and where professional policemen have no problem qualifying women as sluts and whores and even nymphomaniacs. Where sex and drugs (and condoms and socialists!) still shocked. Heh, I don't know that I'd like to live there, but I certainly enjoyed my visit.



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