The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Translated by Alan Blair
Originally published as Den skrattande polisen, 1968
This edition: Vintage Books, April 1977
I’m very happy to get back to the Martin Beck series, even if I was a little weirded out by the cover of this book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a huge assault rifle on the cover. The cover stands in stark contrast to the source of the title, a 1920s novely record called The Adventures of the Laughing Policeman.
The Laughing Policeman is a compact story about a horrible crime rife with social commentary. The political commentary seems to grow as the series goes on. The crime at the center of the story is the mass shooting of 9 people on a double decker bus on a cold rainy night on the border of Stockholm and the suburb of Solna, the same night that most of the police force is at an anti-Vietnam protest. One of the murder victims was Stenström, a young member of Beck’s squad, but no one knows what he was doing on the bus.
The Martin Beck books tend to be heavy on the procedural part of a police procedural: it’s not just interrogations, but it’s scientific tests and strategy sessions. Because the crime was so large and garnered so much media attention, there are lots of characters as Beck’s squad receives reinforcements from all over Sweden.
It’s a compact story, which is a great change of pace. It feels quite contemporary, which speaks to the couple’s influence on current crime writing. But parts of the story definitely place it in the 1960’s: Gunnarson’s rants are pretty retrograde, on purpose; and there is a bit of victim-blaming that reminded me very much to the first book in the series, Roseanna. This is my favorite entry in the series so far.