Our book today is The Laughing Policeman, a 1968 police procedural mystery from the phenomenally popular Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo that got translated into English in 1970 and quickly racked up more critical and popular success than all the authors’ previous novels combined and is still considered something of an archetype of the whole sub-genre.
It’s an odd sub-genre, one of the oddest in the whole mystery realm. Unlike the more marquee-grabbing stories in which an eccentric dilettante like Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey swoop in and solve crimes, in police procedurals the cases are cracked by dint of unrelentingly ordinary policework. There may be some outstanding workers (the main character in this series, Detective Martin Beck, would be the local case-in-point), but every investigation is handled by a team. The team consists of a bunch of hard-working officers, usually presided over by querulous and moronic bosses, and when the work is done each day, the characters repair to dim cop-bars and grouse about work, or else they return to the dark, chilly apartments in which they live and drink alone. Sweden all but single-handedly inaugurated this sub-genre, and although its been played out against the backdrop of virtually every industrialized nation, even the ones set in dry, hot, sunny Africa somehow manage to feel Swedish.
I confess, I’ve never seen the appeal. Every time I read a police procedural, I always find myself wondering the same thing: don’t readers get more than enough of their own hum-drum workplaces in real life, without mentally transporting themselves to somebody else’s during their precious, precious reading time? Are minuscule differences in workplace personality really ever preferable to those singular eccentricities they replace? Who wouldn’t rather have Judge Dee’s imperious short temper or Hercule Poirot’s leetle grey cells over some down-at-heels working stiff sitting at his desk inching his way down a list of car registration numbers from the impound yard until it’s time for his lunch?
Even so, it’s easy to see why The Laughing Policeman stands out. The story opens with a horrific crime: a lone gunman opens fire on a double-decker Stockholm bus, killing eight people – one of whom is a police detective, Ake Stenstrom, an old colleague of Martin Beck’s. The news breaks at the precinct house in a typically laconic manner:
The first senior policeman to arrive at Norra Stationsgatan was Gunvald Larsson.
He had been sitting at his desk at police headquarters at Kungsholmen, thumbing through a dull and wordy report, very listlessly and for about the umpteenth time, while he wondered why on earth people didn’t go home … The phone rang. He grunted and picked up the receiver.
But our authors are good at conveying the life of Stockholm fifty years ago, a place almost entirely unprepared for such American levels of violence:
Nobody knew anything for sure, but there were two words that were whispered from person to person and soon spread in concentric circles through the crowd and the surrounding houses and city, finally taking more definite shape and being flung out across the country as a whole. By now the words had reached far beyond the frontiers.
Mass murder in Stockholm.
Mass murder in a bus in Stockholm.
The first cops on the scene clumsily contaminate the physical evidence in their confusion and fear, but the investigation moves doggedly onward just the same. When Martin Beck reflects on his old friend Stenstrom, any reader of Swedish crime fiction will be able to predict the tone of the results, if not the actual factoids:
A nice guy. Ambitious, persevering, smart, ready to learn. On the other hand rather shy, still a trifle childish, anything but witty, not much of a sense of humor on the whole. But who had?
Who indeed? The Laughing Policeman kept me every bit as entertained during this last re-reading as it did when I first read it, and while I was enjoying myself I kept wondering if maybe I’d always been too harsh on the whole sub-genre of grim, humorless, plodding, utterly quotidian police procedurals. Then I remember two things: a) the long, unending bore-fest that is the novels of Henning Mankell, and b) how exceptional The Laughing Policeman is even among the authors’ own books. Maybe it takes more of a team player than I’ll ever be to really sink into these novels and love them, but even lacking that, I can certainly love this book.