The Laughing Policeman
by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö
How can we account for how hot Scandinavian mysteries are today? Long before Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo took the international mystery world by storm, the writing duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were ushering in a golden age of Nordic noir. The first of their series of police procedurals featuring Stockholm police detective Martin Beck debuted in 1965, but it was not until the fourth book in the series, The Laughing Policeman, was translated into English in 1971 that the rest of the world fell in love with mayhem with a far northern accent.
Beck, however, seems the character least likely to laugh. The joke, if a joke is intended (and nothing these writers did seems unintended) is that depressive, dyspeptic Beck laughs only once.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö (whose photo illustrates this post) were exploiting a landscape and culture ripe for the exploration of crime. Of course there’s the climate, with its months of cold, damp and darkness that mirror the darkness in the souls of the genre’s characters. (Not surprisingly, The Laughing Policeman’s opening sentence (in the English translation of Alan Blair that I follow) is “On the evening of the thirteenth of November it was pouring in Stockholm. . . the weather was abominable.”
And beyond landscape is culture. Or do landscape and culture mirror each other?
“You can find extensive reading and writing of crime fiction only in very old and stable democracies,” Swedish crime author Liza Marklund writes in John Connolly and Declan Burke’s anthology of mystery novels, Books to Die For. “I spend quite a lot of time in Africa, and when I tell my friends in Kenya that I write fictional books about crimes being committed, they look at me strangely and ask: ‘Why?’ You need freedom of speech, law and order, hope, and prosperity to be able to enjoy fictitious crimes and violence.”
Maybe the audience for crime fiction is bolstered too by a relatively large population of (possibly) overeducated Caucasians. Or am I reading too much into Marklund’s additional statement, that “The whiter and brighter the society, the darker and blacker the crime appears: the drama is all in the contrast.”
At that cold and rainy opening of The Laughing Policeman, Swedish society hardly looks bright. Martin Beck accepts the invitation of his friend and fellow policeman Lennart Kollberg to a late night chess game. Beck is a notoriously bad chess player, but the game still beats returning home in the rain to his uncongenial wife.
And even though most of Stockholm’s police force is gathered outside the American embassy, battling demonstrators protesting the Vietnam war, there’s little reason to believe either Beck or Kollberg will be needed at work. Why would anyone who isn’t forced into the cold rain by pay or principle would choose to go out?
Little do Beck or his friend know that as the anti-war demonstration is breaking up, a mass murder is being committed, a murder that will rock a city unused to such horrors to its core. Neither do they know that one of the murder victims is a young fellow police officer working on his own time to solve a sexually-oriented murder that has puzzled Beck for years.
Is there a connection between the murders and the political demonstration? Is the young police officer the target of the mass murderer or only collateral damage? And what is the meaning of the statement the sole survivor makes immediately before dying?