As I continue to read my way through this series, I’m beginning to notice emerging themes and preoccupations of these excellent books. In The Laughing Policeman the overriding sense is of life wasted and how a private obsession can spiral into something catastrophic.
The book opens with a mass killing on a Stockholm bus. Eight people are killed and the sole survivor is only able to utter barely intelligible sounds when police ask him to identify the killer. On the bus was an off-duty detective, Ake Strenstrom, who managed to draw his gun before he was killed.
Inspector Martin Beck and his assistant Kollberg are perplexed by Strenstrom’s presence amongst the dead. Unless he was involved in an investigation, he shouldn’t have been carrying his service revolver. However, when Beck and Kollberg interview Strenstrom’s girlfriend it becomes clear that he was attempting to solve a cold case, the murder of Teresa Camarão which took place years earlier. The team are forced to retrace the steps of the original investigation to discover the killer involved in both cases.
Despite the presence of mass murder, the tone of the book is as I’ve come to expect, sober and restrained. Beck approaches the investigation in his usual methodical manner, judging and not-judging at the same time. The Stockholm police are as varied as ever. The luckless Kristiansson and Kvant who are slow to discover the mass killing and contaminate the scene of the crime are given a dressing down by their superior but supported by Martin Beck who seems to realise there is more at stake than simple police incompetence.
There are moments of grim humour. The dead Strenstrom had photographed his long-term girlfriend in a number of sexual positions to try to enter the mind of the dead Teresa. The detectives are embarrassed to find the photographs in Strenstrom’s desk and Kollberg in particular seems to find the images perplexing. The writers are wonderful at writing understated prose, especially about relationships. There is a particularly moving scene where Beck is terrified that it is Kollberg who is the policeman who has been killed on the bus.
I found the ending of the book slightly flat. The laughing policeman of the title is a reference to the song made famous by Charles Penrose. At the end, Beck laughs humorously at something he finds, but there is rarely a feeling of hope in the books of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. But as expected I very much enjoyed this book and once more was impressed by the inventiveness of this writing duo.