The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, trans. Alan Blair, Random House, 1970.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö changed the scope of detective fiction in Sweden, adding social criticism (of the 1960s and early 1970s, when these novels were written) to the puzzle-solving aspect. According to Henning Mankell, creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander, the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books inaugurated “Nordic Noir” and paved the way for his own series and for the celebrated crime novels of Stieg Larsson. In The Laughing Policeman, a big, red double-decker bus halts at the end of its line, and all its passengers are dead, gunned down by an unknown assailant. Among them is Åke Stenström, a young policeman, whose mysterious activities become the focus of the investigation. Readers must wait for the last page, the last sentence, to discover who laughed and why.
This is my first Martin Beck novel, but the fourth in the series. I know I will be going back to read all 10 of them. The writing is superb, and the best thing about them is that Martin Beck, a quick-witted, deep-thinking man with a chronic cough and a frayed marriage, is not the only memorable detective! The whole homicide squad makes an appearance and each does his unique part to solve the case. Sten Lennart Kollberg stands out in this one–the chapter where he interviews Åsa Torell, Stenström’s widow, was the most riveting. He and Beck are close friends, in the rather uneasy way that men in difficult jobs can sometimes have.
Over the years they [Beck and Kollberg] had become more and more dependent on each other in their work. They were a good complement to one another and they had learned to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings without wasting words. When Kollberg got married eighteen months ago and moved to Skärmarbrink they had come closer together geographically and had taken to meeting in their spare time.
Quite recently Kollberg had said, in one of his rare moments of depression, “If you weren’t there, God only knows whether I’d stay on the force.” (Chap. 5, p. 19)
I am exploring the whole Nordic Noir phenomenon, and I’m glad I have begun with this superb example. I will probably go back and start at the beginning with Roseanna. If you have another favorite in the series, please leave a comment to let me know!