Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Laughing Policeman (Martin Beck, #4)The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The cold bright light made every detail stand out with the sharpness of an etching. The whole bus seemed to be full of twisted, lifeless bodies covered with blood."

My main problem in reviewing The Laughing Policeman (1968), the fourth entry in the famous "Martin Beck series" of police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, is how to convincingly justify rounding my four-and-a-half-star rating to five stars. Obviously, as a novel, as a work of literary fiction, this crime drama is nowhere near the greatness of, say, J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace or C. Nooteboom's The Following Story . While the prose is good and the plot is absolutely captivating, while there are virtually no clichés that tend to ruin most mystery novels, and while the characters are full-bodied and vividly drawn, the book - quite obviously - is not a masterpiece of literature. So why five stars? It is simply the best police procedural I have ever read, a pinnacle of its genre. I read it for the first time forty-something years ago, and the current re-read has not changed my enthusiastic opinion of the book. By the way, I am not alone in this high praise: the book won the Edgar Award for the best novel of 1970 from the Mystery Writers of America.

Stockholm, Sweden. November 1967. Most of the police force are busy controlling the massive demonstrations: thousands of people are protesting the Vietnam War in front of the American Embassy. A man walking a dog runs towards a police patrol to report a city bus that has driven off the road and stopped with its front door open. In the bus the patrolmen find nine people shot, eight to their death - the greatest mass murder in Sweden's history. One of the victims is Ǻke Stenström, a detective from Martin Beck's homicide squad. Beck and his crew of Kollberg, Larsson, Melander, Rönn as well as detectives called from other Swedish regions embark on a long and painstaking investigation with virtually no clues available in the beginning.

The story follows the investigation, detailing every small step, each iota of progress and the many dead ends. No other crime novel is better at showing the team effort, the meticulously patient work that involves searching for clues, gathering and analyzing them, the various re-enactments and brainstorming sessions. Yet even with the most dedicated work of large teams of people, success would not be attained if not for individual sparks of intuition and brilliance, like Melander's crucial question "What could Stenström do?" or Kollberg's insights into and experience with sexual behaviors. Of course, nothing much would be achieved either without quiet, assured and steady-handed leadership by Martin Beck.

The portraits of detectives and other characters are superbly drawn and several passages are indeed masterpieces of psychological observation. I have always remembered the conversations between Kollberg and Asa Torell, Ǻke Stenström's girlfriend, and they indeed stand out as luminously as I had found them in the mid-1970s. There is not a single false note in the characters' psychology. The superbly convincing and powerful ending, devoid of any idiotic plot twists, stands out as the epitome of criminal story denouements.

Considering the bloody setup of the novel, it may seem strange but there is a substantial amount of humor in the novel. Not only do Kristiansson and Kvant provide the usual laughs, but we also have the monstrously stupid detective Ullholm, "a man who knew most things and understood everything." We also have some sexual humor: Kollberg asks his wife to stand on her hands, naked, and then receives a sort of vaccination from her. I like the generous dose of black humor: for instance, a psychiatrist in a mental hospital, while evaluating a man who murdered his wife, tells Kollberg that the patient is much better after he finally got what he needed: "to be rid of that bitch he was married to."

One of the most compelling passages in the novel is a fragment I have remembered for forty-something years: it quotes the text on a sign carried by a little girl during the anti-American demonstration - I am unable to repeat it because of decency concerns - and describes what the policemen later did to the little girl after they had seen the sign.

Four and a half stars, rounded up.

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