Friday, February 4, 2011

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

[Translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair]

Rating: 3 Stars

‘The Laughing Policeman’ is considered a vintage crime classic. It was first published in Sweden in 1968 by the wife and husband team of Sjowall and Wahloo respectively, and is one of ten books featuring Detective Martin Beck of the Stockholm Homicide Squad.

The book is reflective of the events of the day. The reverberations of the Vietnam War are being felt as far away as Sweden, when the story opens. The police are preoccupied with anti-Vietnam demonstrators outside the U.S. embassy, and violence is escalating on both sides. Beck, who  is not among those trying to quell the demonstrators, is woken in the night with the news that a mass-murder has been committed on a commuter bus by an unknown gunman. He has a personal stake in this crime. One of the victims on the bus was a junior of his, and that makes Beck and his squad look at the case very closely.

The media, public, and politicians work themselves into a lather at this violent incident, and the police are demanded to throw themselves into action. What is unusual about this book is that the pace is measured. The reader may be in no less of a hurry than the jittery populace of Stockholm, but Beck and his team proceed methodically, investigating every possible angle, knocking on doors, laboriously compiling paperwork, and systematically eliminating suspects. These things do not happen overnight. Perhaps that’s why this book is considered a definitive example of the police procedural.

The unhappily married and lugubrious Beck grew on me, as did the rest of his colleagues, each one indelibly etched in the mind. One drawback to this book is the translation – I found it to be disjointed and quite jarring, till I could settle into the rhythm of the story. This is certainly a book that requires a longer attention span, but the plot pulls you in, and keeps you reading, till you reach the highly satisfying conclusion.

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