The Laughing Policeman
by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö
When eight people are found dead on a bus one rainy Swedish November night in 1968’s The Laughing Policeman by husband and wife writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Stockholm police are left with only two substantial clues to the assailant’s identity: the shell casings of the weapon used, and the statement of the massacre’s sole survivor. What more could police ask for? A investigation will reveal the type of weapon used. An eyewitness can identify, or at least describe, the shooter. After that, finding the killer should be easy, shouldn’t it? Or maybe not.
The weapon turns out to be a 1940's era submachine gun, one of thousands stolen from military depots, or even purloined by former servicemen. And the eyewitness only emerges from a coma seconds before dying, leaving behind a few baffling words. Baffling, that is, until the police can decipher the speaker’s accent.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote alternating chapters of their series of mysteries featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck and his co-workers. I like to think that Sjöwall, herself a translator, might have been responsible for the chapters dealing with the numerous regional and international accents described in the book. One detective is described as having such a broad provincial accent that a Middle Eastern immigrant he interviews doesn’t believe he’s actually Swedish. Others also are identifiable by their regional accents, which unfortunately disappear in translation.
Or perhaps, as British author/translator David Bellos discusses in Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, his book about the perils of translation, accents disappear because translators fear that use of nonstandard language will perceived as evidence of ignorance.
At any rate, the (briefly) surviving eyewitness’s statement remains incomprehensible, the more so because he is an American immigrant, a native English speaker with, yes, a formidable accent.
A tape of the all too brief interview reads:
Who did the shooting?
What did he look like?
If any non-Swedish speakers intend to write a Swedish mystery with a character named “Koleson,” stop now. According to Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s detectives, there’s no such name. And what, in any language, does dnrk mean?
Not until the survivor’s fellow employees are questioned does the answer emerge.
“…he was born in America,” (the detective says). “Was it noticeable when he talked?”
“Was it! He had an accent just like Anita Ekberg’s. And when he was drunk he spoke English.”
“When he was drunk?”
“Yes. And when he lost his temper. Or forgot himself.”
Or, the detective realizes, when he was dying, piecing together the survivor’s first answer as the English words, “didn’t recognize him.” And the second as an attempt to describe the assailant as “like Olsson,” the survivor’s work supervisor. (Author and translator at this point helpfully distinguish between the Swedish pronunciation and the survivor’s Americanized “Oleson.”) When the supervisor is found to bear a striking resemblance to a suspect in an old and cold murder case, Beck and company are nearing the end of their trail.
All of which leaves me to wonder, after the crime is solved, how Anita Ekberg, mid-twentieth century Swedish blonde bombshell and starlet of a string of American and Italian movies, managed to acquire an American accent in Swedish.