Review: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The Laughing Policeman

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.

I bought my copy of this book. Other reviews can be found at Eurocrime, Crime Segments and Avadhut Recommends.

Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A recent review by José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot blog of ‘Cop Killer’, the ninth book in the Martin Beck series written by Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö prompted me to start the first book in the series. Published in 1965, Roseanna influenced a generation of crime writers and the paperback copy I bought featured an introduction by Henning Mankell who recalled the impact of reading it at the time.

Roseanna is the story of a murdered girl fished out of the Göta canal in the Swedish city of Motala. Detective Inspector Martin Beck is called from Stockholm to assist with the murder investigation but is hampered by difficulties in identifying the victim. The case moves at a snails pace as first the detective tries to identify the girl and then discover her murderer. The victim has been sexually assaulted and strangled and through painstaking police work the culprit brought to justice.

I found the book an engrossing read and was struck by how influential the writing must have been on a generation of Scandinavian crime writers. It’s a police procedural and parts of the investigation reminded me of the books of George Simenon’s Maigret where a dogged persistence in the pursuit of justice overcomes numerous obstacles. The character of Martin Beck cuts a figure similar to Maigret, although he is far gloomier and troubled by various illnesses and a depressing home life. Minutiae of both the investigation and domestic details are narrated in a neutral non-descriptive tone, and results in a picture of Swedish society in the mid sixties gradually taking shape.

In many respects the period in which the book was set dictates the pace of the narrative. In a time before the internet or fax machines, information takes days to be transmitted across continents and the investigation creaks on at painfully slow rate. But the method of the murder could be right of an episode of ‘The Killing’ such is the timeless nature of violence against women. I was impressed by how the character of the victim, Roseanna McGraw, comes clearly through the narrative via transcripts of interviews and how non-judgemental the investigation is involving a victim who might be considered promiscuous in Swedish society at that time.

An excellent book and luckily I have another nine in the series to read.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Reactions to Reading, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reviewing the Evidence.