Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – “The Laughing Policeman”

There is no one hero.

Yes, Martin Beck is the driver, the most determined. He does the most brooding. He—mostly—puts the pieces together. But I was struck by the teamwork in The Laughing Policeman and what I suspect is more often the case in real police work—that the puzzle pieces come together through collaboration, not by lone wolves sniffing one trail.

Perhaps it was because Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were also collaborating. Teamwork rules.

Written in 1968, the style here is multiple points of view. The prose swoops down from extreme
omniscience and scene-setting—a dry, matter-of-fact coolness to the tone—before picking up the thoughts and actions of one of the many cops in the ensemble.

“Nobody knew anything for sure, but there were two words that were whispered from person to person and soon spread in concentric circles through the crowd and the surrounding houses and city, finally taking more definite shape and being flung out across the country as a whole. By now the words had reached far beyond the frontiers. Mass murder.”

In the police station:

“Telephones rang incessantly, people came and went, floors were dirtied and the men who dirtied them were irritable and clammy with sweat and rain.”

This is “noir” that doesn’t have to try very hard to be dark: grit and dankness rule the Stockholm setting.

The cops are a warts-and-all bunch.  You might want to keep handy the Wikipedia list of cops as they come and go. Their characteristics come to light over time but a cheat sheet comes in handy (particularly if you are picking up a “Beck” in the middle of the series).

The Laughing Policeman climbs a mountain of plot—a plot within a plot. A cold case becomes the key to solving a mass murder. Realizing that the cold case is the key to solving the mass murder takes time and effort. Finding out how the cold case connects to the mass murder takes time and effort. The clues, such as they are, are scant and hard to spot. The typical rising-action arc is not here. All hope is lost—repeatedly. Beck and his team are dead in the water more often than they are making real headway. The climax comes quickly.

The key—correction, one of the keys—is that one of those killed in the mass murder is a cop. But what was he doing there?  Who was he with? Why was he there? Why was he riding that bus? Over and over that question drives the action.

The cops divvy up assignments, chase down leads—come up empty and fight for a faint tidbits of information.  Action?  Not really. The work is procedural, dogged, detailed—and nuanced. One of the most amazing scenes in the book, a scene that gripped me as much as any chase scene, is a 17-page exchange between Kollberg, Beck’s trusted colleague, and the dead cop’s wife. It’s a piece of work—and tension—that all takes place in her apartment.

When the pieces finally come together, the trap is set and even then Sjöwall and Wahlöö play it cool, don’t let the descriptions over-inflate the scene.

I found this passage from a terrific profile of Sjöwall by Louise France in The Observor.  (Wahlöö died decades ago.) I think this nails why this series could prove addicting:

“There is no one hero. The policemen irritate one another in the same way that anyone who has ever worked in an office will recognise. Mannerisms grate. Tempers flare. Yet they spend more time with one another than they do with their wives – those who can hold down a marriage, that is.

The books are set in an era when everyone smoked; there were no mobile phones, or DNA samples, or the internet. They’re full of Swedish addresses which are as alien as they are unpronounceable, and as unpronounceable as they are long. Yet they don’t feel outdated or off-putting. The action is often slow yet they’re still hugely entertaining (and often very funny).”

Yes, I stole France’s line: there is no one hero.

Good stuff.

+++

Final thought: A fellow Colorado mystery writer friend suggested this book to me but sent a Bantam Books paperback with the cover taped over. The cover, she said, doesn’t do the story justice. She’s right. (What? Like I couldn’t find the cover online?) I loaded up three other versions of the cover but not sure any of these have got it quite right, either.  Tough one to illustrate.

5 responses to “Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – “The Laughing Policeman”

  1. Mike Orenduff

    The Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö books are among my favorites, although I admit I can’t remember which one is the wife and which the husband. I think you pegged “The Laughing Policeman” perfectly. and you made a good point about teamwork. After one of the couple died, the other wrote a couple of books, but it wasn’t the same without the team.

  2. Thanks, Mike .. you might really enjoy that profile of Maj (the woman). You’ll never forget who is who after reading that….it’s a terrific piece from a couple years back. Link is embedded in the review & thanks again !

    Mark

  3. Mike Orenduff

    Fascinating. I’d love to meet her. I think it’s time to read the books again. I haven’t done so for maybe ten years. Thanks for the post.

  4. You bet and thanks again, Mike.

  5. Love this series.

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