Sjowall, Maj and Wahloo, Per - 'The Laughing Policeman'
Harper Perennial have recently republished the Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo - originally written between 1965 and 1975. These books are often included in lists of the great classics of crime fiction. They integrate a wide range of social and cultural issues alongside their crime fiction base, making some very pointed observations and statements about Swedish society at the time that they were written. Even allowing for the way that they mirror society, as seen through the author's joint eyes at that time, they also stand up incredibly well in current day terms - there is no sense that they have become dated or antiquated in any way and the message is as relevant and pointed today as it was when they were written.
THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is the fourth book in the series, originally published in 1968. It opens with Stockholm police stretched to the limits by a series of protests against the war in Vietnam. On a rainy night, at the height of one of the major protests, off in the suburbs of Stockholm a double decker bus veers off the road, the driver and eight of his passengers gunned down by an unknown killer. The murders seem to be totally motiveless, there doesn't seem to be any connection between any of the people on that bus. One of the passengers is one of Beck's own detectives, dead in his seat, with his service revolver in his hand and no apparent reason for being anywhere near that bus.
Again Sjowall and Wahloo weave an intricate investigation story deftly, with a view of the surrounding circumstances of the time - the effect that the protests are having on police resourcing, the tension between Stockholm and more regional areas of Sweden, the tension between the investigating team members, social problems of workers coming to Sweden for a better life and finding a different story. Even Sweden's much commented-on sexual freedom and liberation is considered, when the discovery of nude photographs of the dead man's girlfriend are found in his desk.
As expected in any book from this pair of writers, the investigation is deft and very human focused. The book incorporates a range of commentary on a wide range of issues, but there's nothing preachy or pushy - the tone is observational, the issues highlighted as part of the characters' reactions and observations.
Each of the Harper Perennial titles incorporates an introduction written by a well known crime writer of current times - THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is introduced by Nicci French (Sean French and Nicci Gerrard) - who, highlight a number of the social commentary elements of the book. Whilst the entire introduction is very interesting, one of the most telling comments is right at the end:
"And speaking as another married couple who write thrillers, we don't know which of them wrote what, we can't see the joins, and we don't care".
The PS section in this book continues Richard Shepherd's analysis; briefly discusses the film adaptation of 1973 and continues the Q and A sessions with Maj Sjowall.
Review reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
Read another review of THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN.
Karen Chisholm, Australia