The Laughing Policeman

Americans are internationally famous on occasion for not being able to find most countries of the world on a map.  For the Scandinavian countries, that problem is being corrected by an influx of crime fiction writings that is proving both popular in print and as media adaptations.

Has anyone missed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Best selling books, great Swedish films and now the lucrative American movie version making a stir.  How about the books by Henning Mankell about the morose Wallendar?  If you have not read them, maybe you are familiar with the BBC television series that bears his name starring Kenneth Branagh.

Lately I have dipped a toe into the Scandanavian world by reading The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg (entertaining enough by not all that discussable in our book group) and Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss (not entertaining or discussable).

Hmmmm….Being old on occasion has its advantages and I can remember in my day the first Scandinavian invasion.  I think it is time to step into the Wayback Machine.

The leading authors in that age of Northern European enlightenment for Americans were Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  Over a ten year period from 1965 to 1975, this common law husband and wife (ah, those crazy kids in the 60’s) wrote about a police organization in Sweden.  What made the series so relevant to those of us who read it then was the political radicalism at its base.

While class consciousness might be something we studied in college, it was rare to find Marxism so obviously displayed in popular crime fiction.  Nothing in that intent made these books hard to read.  Everything from their sparse style, their bleak tone and, of course, their sad foreign setting made these novels memorable.  While the tourist bureau might hope for a shinier picture of Sweden, the mean streets portrayed in this series seem old and worn out, filled with people who just do not care.  I have often wondered if it really rains this much in Sweden, the same thought I have had while reading about Simenon’s France.

The series is based on a Stockholm police homicide squad that is led by the often mistrusted Martin Beck.  Whether Sjowall and Wahloo read him or not, much in this series is reminiscent of the groundbreaking 87th precinct novels written by America’s Ed McBain.  The use of an ever changing ensemble cast with certain returning feature players creates the character identification that most crime readers enjoy.  While the Beck novels were written long before the required dependence on CSI techniques, they most definitely can be called police procedurals.

The novel I chose to revisit is often listed as their best:  The Laughing Policeman (1970).  The action takes place in 1967 and there is a Vietnam War protest taking up much of the police officers’s time.  One night a machine gun is used to slaughter nine people on a bus.  The most interesting question for the members of lead detective Martin Beck’s squad is why was one of their youngest detectives, Ake Stenstrom, on the bus?

Every thing about this novel still holds up from its rapid pace to its discussion of the (then) current state of Swedish society.  The repartee between the characters is charming in a slightly black humor sort of way.  The best thing that can be said about this novel is that everyone is very human.

So, in your current enthusiasm for all things Scandinavian, don’t forget to try these grand masters.  A book discussion with their works could be just as satisfying as the latest bestseller.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "The Laughing Policeman"

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  1. shavers@crc.losrios.edu' Shelley says:

    The climate certainly justifies a bleak tone in literature. But since my grandfather was from Sweden, I wonder if there are any Swedish classics with a light tone.

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