Friday, April 24, 2009
The Laughing Policeman
The weather sucks, he and his wife barely talk, and his stomach pain is so bad he can barely eat at all. Superintendent Martin Beck is already in a bad mood when news reaches him that nine people have been shot and killed on a double-decker bus in downtown Stockholm. Among the dead is one of Beck's fellow officers, an ambitious young detective with no discernible reason for being on that particular bus at that particular time. The question is left to Beck and the rest of Stockholm's police department, with reinforcements on their way from all over Sweden, was Det. Stenstrom working on a case at the time of his death, and is that the reason he and eight others were shot?
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's police procedural (the fourth in a series of ten, though the first that I have read) is a fast-paced and entertaining look at the way a police investigation operates. It is not a conventional mystery novel in that it does not invite the reader to guess at the solution from the beginning but rather allows the solution to evolve more authentically. There is also a stark difference between the genius-detective based works of Agatha Christie and other Golden Age writers. Here the entire department works on the case, and each man has his specialties and each makes important discoveries. There is Melander with a perfect memory, Larsson with physical courage, Kollberg with his fanatical work ethic, and several others. With no leads to start with, the men are forced to interview the victims families in the hope that something will turn up.
Sjowall and Wahloo adeptly create a mood of pessimism throughout their story. The weather is uniformly dreary, whether it is raining or snowing or not. The public and the newspapers are outraged as the investigation drags on without quick result, and in their disdain for the police the authors subtly put forth their own negativity towards Swedish society. The book is not a way to learn much about Swedish history but the zeitgeist of the era seems to be well-captured.
After reading three of John Updike's Rabbit novels back-to-back-back I needed a break, and this crime thriller was a perfect choice. I'll be looking into more of Sjowall and Wahloo. The Laughing Policeman gets 9.0 out of 10.