The Laughing Policeman (Martin Beck #4)
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Harper Perennial, 2007 (1968; trans. 1970)
Translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair
On a cold and rainy Stockholm night, nine bus riders are gunned down by an unknown assassin. The press, anxious for an explanation for the seemingly random crime, quickly dubs the killer a madman. But Detective Inspector Martin Beck suspects otherwise: this apparently motiveless murderer has managed to target one of Beck's best detectives, found dead in his seat with his service revolver in his hand. Surely he would not have been riding that lethal bus without a reason...
This is the first Sjöwall and Wahlöö book I have read, and it turned out to be a solid, gripping, good old fashioned police procedural. It's 1968 in Stockholm, and Beck and his team are chasing a multiple murderer against a backdrop of Vietnam protests and a changing Swedish society (heightened consumerism and police distrust, but also more benign details like a switch to right hand traffic to fall into line with neighbouring countries). These little background details set the scene and made the book more interesting.
Before Wallander driving around Ystad in his Volvo and drinking too much in his own company, there was evidently Martin Beck, sleeping on the sofa and failing to connect properly with his kids. Beck is likeable, though, and I liked his friendship with fellow detective Kollberg. The characterisations are subtle, but they do differentiate the different policeman and inject some personality into the proceedings.
In the end, there are two crimes to solve in The Laughing Policeman, and they both come together in the last few pages. Given that the original murders take place right at the beginning, the in-between is mostly police slog, interviewing witnesses and following up sparse clues. Essentially, the layers are revealed gradually, and I found it compelling rather than boring as the police went about their investigations. There are no great leaps of faith or convenient clairvoyancy going on here, which was, in the end, refreshing. I will definitely be returning for more Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the future.
Overall rating: 7.5/10
Book source: Borrowed from the library.