The Laughing Policeman
by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö
When eight people are found shot to death on a bus in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1968 The Laughing Policeman, the public is incredulous. “This is the first time a real mass murder has occurred in Sweden,” a reporter insists to luckless Stockholm policeman Gunvald Larsson as he conducts a press conference. “Do you think this maniacal act was inspired by what has happened in America, for instance?”
The maniacal act in America the reporter mentions most likely was, as Texans know only too well, the 1966 shooting spree from the University of Texas clock tower by Charles Whitman. Whitman – and Texas – gained international notoriety when the 25-year-old ex-Marine climbed to the top of the UT tower just before noon on August 1, 1966, and spent the next hour and half on a shooting spree before being killed by a local police officer.
Of course, Sjöwall and Wahlöö may also have had in mind the murder of nine Chicago nurses by Richard Speck earlier that same summer of 1966. Or the 1959 murder of four members of the Clutter family in 1959 (chronicled by Truman Capote’s 1966 publication of In Cold Blood). Maybe they even thought of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. So many infamous murders, so many choices.
Judging from the current popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction, readers from other parts of the world may wonder if the Nordic lands have become a hotbed of murder. In fact, violent crime, especially mass murders such as the 2011 killing of 77 people in Norway are incredibly rare. Prior to the 1968 publication of The Laughing Policeman, the only report I found of a mass murder in Sweden was in 1900, a crime spree so distant in time it may have been overlooked by the fictional reporter at Larsson’s press conference.
Or perhaps the ferry boat rampage with knife and revolver by John Filip Nordlund that killed five hardly seemed like a “real” mass murder. (Nordlund also earned a place in criminal history as the last person in Sweden executed by manual beheading.)
After all, Nordlund’s killings didn’t wipe out so many people in such a short time. Surely, the press reasons, there must have been more than one murderer involved to have gunned down everyone riding on that ill-fated bus in Stockholm before any of the passengers could react.
Even more troubling is the presence among the victims of an off-duty police officer who, contrary to practice at the time, was carrying his own weapon which had not even been drawn. His girlfriend insists he was working on a case, but there’s nothing in police records to indicate the nature of his search. And a search of his apartment turns up a wealth of information about sexual deviance that shakes investigators. Has one of their own crossed a line?
The Sjöwall-Wahlöö team became famous as much for their exploration of social ills in the outwardly idyllic Swedish welfare state as for their intricate plots, and before Stockholm detectives Martin Beck and his fellow police officers can solve the crime, they will lead readers through an exploration of Swedish society, drug dealing, mental health and immigration that still seems prescient.
In the meantime, English-speaking readers face another dilemma: how to ask for the books of their favorite Scandinavian crime writers whose names abound in diacritical marks? Fortunately, a link at the New York Public Library site includes a guide not only to the most famous authors, but also to pronunciation. Skål!