Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction for this novel in 2009, declaring it his favorite in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Franzen says he likes the bad weather of Stockholm in descending winter and he also enjoys detective Beck's chronic cold. Beck is also grouchier than we have seen him before. The crime at hand is again sensational, this time a mass murder. Someone got on a bus and mowed down eight passengers and the driver with a submachine gun. There are not many helpful clues, but among the dead is one of their own, detective Ake Stenstrom. No one has any idea what he was doing on that bus. There are again signs of Ed McBain's influence in the approach the police take to solving the crime, based on a theory that there was one intended victim and the rest were killed to cover that up, making it look like the work of a madman. This unlikely hunch was also the basis of McBain's Lady, Lady I Did It. Maybe such things happen in cases of mass murder, but I suspect not often. Also, the character of Stenstrom has a lot in common with the 87th Precinct detective Bert Kling—they are both young and capable, but still trying to prove themselves, and they are both also particularly good at trailing people. Of course, Stenstrom dies whereas Kling loses girlfriends consecutively, a critical difference. I read all this as sincere respect for McBain even though Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the better and more interesting writers. The theory of the camouflaged victim is not pursued by all the Swedish investigators. Many have their own pet theories they are chasing down. The crime is reminiscent of the movie Speed or a bus accident that actually happened in Seattle in the late '90s. It's sensational again, but already across the series there's a sense of deliberation about the cases: a sex murder (Roseanna), a notorious celebrity (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke), a serial killer (The Man on the Balcony), and now a mass murder. Sjöwall and Wahlöö obviously understood the necessity for the lurid in crime fiction—it's in practically every one of their books—yet they always feel fully in control of the material (unlike McBain and way too many others) and use it to make specific points about justice, society, and other large themes. Martin Beck is also being slowly developed into a fully rounded and complex character, but again this is in the service of larger themes. Beck's marriage has never been good and he has many problems with militaristic police attitudes and bureaucracy. There's a sense of things moving forward and coming together in the larger series.

In case it's not at the library.

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