The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

One of the best police procedural series, and the inspiration for many who’ve written police procedurals since the 1970s, is the amazing 10-book series written by Per Wahlöö, a Swedish journalist, and his partner, Maj Sjöwall. This series is often referred to as the Martin Beck series after the chief investigator for the Stockholm police. But like McBain’s 87th precinct, and even Creasey’s Gideon series, this is a series about the squad. The authors also intended to use the series to make a sociological statement about Sweden over the decade from 1965 to 1975.

Wahlöö and Sjöwall were both Marxists, who felt that the socialist experiment in Sweden was a failure. There was nationalization, but this didn’t lead to improved service, but rather to a mediocre sameness. The best policemen in the squad, Beck, and his friend Kohlberg, often find themselves stymied by the interference of politicians wanting to look good. The politicians and bureaucrats who interfere are almost all inept, so their interference has no good effect. And this situation gets worse through the 10 novels (each covering one year of a decade).

The police were nationalized (local control given over to centralized control in Stockholm) in 1965. The move was intended to make the police more efficient, but bureaucratic interference from those outside the professional police gummed everything up. This bothers Beck somewhat, but he continues to slog through. Kohlberg, who is a more passionate figure, and who seems to value excellence and who hates mediocrity, leaves the series in the ninth book, Cop Killer, because he cannot take it anymore. More than any other character in the books, Kohlberg seems to be the authors’ representative in the book, so when he leaves, it is clear that the series was coming to a close (as it does with the tenth novel, The Terrorists).

The squad has several interesting characters, such as Frederik Melander, the resident memory bank, who recalls old police records verbatim, the volatile ex-soldier Gunvald Larsson, and his good friend, the laid-back Einar Rönn, who comes from a rural area and is Larsson’s best (and only) friend on the force. Wahlöö’s favorite character in the series was the easy going Rönn, while Sjöwall had a fondness for the volatile and abrasive Larsson.

One amazing thing about the series is that Wahlöö and Sjöwall, after developing an outline for each novel, would then work on alternating chapters. And yet, the style remains consistent throughout, so that one cannot detect a difference between Wahlöö’s and Sjöwall’s work. I used to think this was because the translator had equalized the two into his own style. And that may be true to some extent, but I’ve heard that even in the Swedish original, the style remains even and consistent throughout, which is a pretty remarkable thing.

The Laughing Policeman, the fourth in the series, is perhaps the best, and certainly the best known, thanks to a 1973 film version relocated to San Francisco that starred Walter Matthau as Beck (Watch the original film trailer). The title of the novel comes from an English music hall number (you can hear Charles Penrose performing it here). In the book, Beck’s daughter gets him a recording of the song — it was very popular in Sweden — for Christmas, but Beck doesn’t find it funny. The set-up for the novel is that on a November night, someone boarded a Stockholm bus, and opened fire with a machine gun, killing eight, including a policeman. The Swedish media want to see in the sensational killing the act of a mass murderer, something all the Swedes associate with America. In doing research into mass murder, Larsson turns to the American authorities, as the only group that has hands-on experience in the area of mass murder.

The book gives us our best view of the machinery of Beck’s squad at work — everyone has jobs to do, and they set to making sense of what looks like the act of a madman. There are several snide comments made about the Swedish bureaucracy, and about the public press, which always seems to misquote the police, taking the police’s words and forcing them to fit into the news organization’s own narrative — some things never change. Beck’s squad, though, works well together without too much interference. That interference will only get worse in later novels, though novel six (Murder at the Savoy), set in Copenhagen, with Beck away from home and the bureaucratic headache of Stockholm, and novel eight (The Locked Room), which is more of a personal investigation of Beck’s into what seems to be a locked room mystery. Those two novels are less bureaucratically claustrophobic.

For an amazing mystery series that serves not only as a great example of police procedural writing, but also serves as a social commentary on Sweden in the 1960s and 70s, one cannot do better than this series. A German beer company, Beck’s, used to have an ad campaign with the tagline: “Becks ist Becks!” as if to say, they needed to say nothing more than its name — that alone was a guarantee of excellence. The same might be said of the Martin Beck series of novels.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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