Friday, October 28, 2011

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Sjöwall, Maj and Wahlöö, Per. The Laughing Policeman. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
(The book was originally published in 1970.)

In typical American fashion (i.e. mostly clueless about authors in countries other than America and England), before this book was chosen for the Connecticut mystery book club, I'd never heard of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote ten Martin Beck mysteries together before Per died. Also, in typical American fashion, I'd never read any Swedish mysteries until The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became impossible to ignore, and my curiosity got the best of me. I've now read two Swedish mysteries. Based on this completely unscientific sample, I'd say that Swedish mystery writers are a bit obsessed with sex, especially -- shall we say? -- abnormal sex.

Of course, many American mystery writers are obsessed with sex, as well, and this book did happen to have been written during the height of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, so I can't fault it for its "adult" content, and I don't. I found that recent history part of the book fascinating (protests against the police, protests against the war in Vietnam), but there a. wasn't quite enough of it to satisfy me and b. what was there, was tossed about in a way that the authors figured their readers would know and understand. In other words, they didn't provide enough details for someone like me, reading the book 41 years after it was published who knows next to nothing about Stockholm today and even less about Stockholm 41 years ago.

Still, the purpose of this novel wasn't to provide Emily Barton with a detailed history of Stockholm circa 1968. It's a mystery, and as a mystery, it's quite good. The authors pulled me in very early on with a set-up that maybe someone smarter than I would have seen coming, but I didn't. I was immediately drawn to the main characters, especially poor Martin Beck, who suffered from a cold throughout the entire book. There were points at which I couldn't turn the pages fast enough, and I really empathized with the police who were stuck with, as the New York Times Book Review endorsement on the cover of my edition notes, "... an apparently clueless crime."

This clueless crime was a mass murder on a double decker bus that took place late one rainy, mid-November night. The first two policemen to arrive on the scene bungle the investigation so much that, even if there had been clues, there are none left. The scene in which senior policeman Gunvald Larsson (a character I'd probably find obnoxious if I met him in real life, but whose sarcasm provides wonderful comic relief in this gritty tale) chews them out for their incompetence made me chuckle. At first, it seems as if the crime is just a random act committed by a lunatic, but Martin Beck, in a police briefing, soon notes,

'It seems far too well thought out. A mentally deranged mass murderer doesn't act with such careful planning.' (p. 49)
Eventually, the police, thanks mostly to Beck and his colleague and friend Lennart Kollberg, begin to make connections and to piece together an answer to the riddle of why someone they all knew (I'm trying to avoid a spoiler here for those of you who might want to read the book, but I'm not doing a very good job) was on that particular bus at that particular hour that night.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö's clipped writing style (definitely from the "no unnecessary words" school) were effective, and I loved the way they used dialogue to tell the story and to fill in gaps instead of providing long descriptions. One of my complaints about the book is that they broke one of the cardinal rules of mystery writing (oh, to hell with it. I'm going to have to include a spoiler, so don't read past this if you don't want one. However, it may not ruin the book for you. In fact, it might make the book better if you know this going into it): the murderer was someone we didn't meet until the last twenty or so pages of the book. There was no way we could suspect and nail the culprit before the police did. I was busy working on a huge, completely wrong theory for a while, because I'm used to reading mysteries in which part of the fun is trying to figure out whodunnit. If I'd known I was only supposed to be enjoying the riddle of how everything was connected and watching the police solve the crime, I might have read the book differently. In that sense, I would call this book more of a thriller than an actual mystery, a thriller disguised as a police procedural.

My other complaint is not really something I can blame on the authors, since they were writing in their place and time. Granted, it was, as I noted above, during the height of the sexual revolution, but since we all know that, long since that revolution has passed, the world is not in any way rid of its sexism (and especially not in Sweden, according to what Stiegg Larsson thought), I can't really be too upset with authors who weave sexism into their novels. That doesn't mean it doesn't bother me, though, and it does bother me that when a woman behaves the way a man does sexually (or the way, a "healthy," "normal" male is supposed to behave), she's labeled a nymphomaniac, whether she's a real life person or a character in a mystery. I was disturbed by the use of the term in this book and the way such woman were dismissed.

Finally, I have one question for the other members of the group. I didn't really get it: why, exactly, did Asa Torell go live with Kollberg and his wife for a while? Was that just some sort of red herring, or was there a real purpose in that plot detail? Or perhaps we were just meant to understand what a nice guy Kollberg was.

Overall, I'm glad to have read this one. It's nothing spectacular, but it's a perfectly fun way to spend a rainy afternoon and evening.


Stefanie said...

There are lots of long, dark cold winter days and nights in Sweden and maybe the amuse and/or horrify thmeselves by thinking about sex, especially abnormal sex?

litlove said...

Great review, and lol to Stefanie's comment! I keep meaning to have a go at this series, as I have heard a lot about it (the ur-novels of Swedish crime and all). And I wonder how I would feel about the portrayal of women. Mostly I'm fine with historical misogyny, I mean, it shows the way things were and we can all breathe a sigh of relief and pat ourselves on the back for being more enlightened. But sometimes certain labels or representations can be a real irritant.

I'm currently reading the Portuguese equivalent of Madame Bovary, and forget the indecency of a hand waving out of a carriage window, this is an incredibly hot portrayal of forbidden passion. I am coming to the conclusion that European writers are simply less uptight about depicting sexuality than Anglo-American ones and, well, good for them, really. There's nothing stranger than sexuality so we might as well accept that!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, lol. I forgot to mention that the horrible weather is practically a character in and of itself in the book.

Litlove, what was hard for me about the sexism in this book was that it was such recent history (and also that one of the authors is female, which makes it harder, even though I know plenty of female authors over the century have inadvertently incorporated sexism in their works), and I forget change doesn't happen overnight. I think you're right about European writers (same with Central and South American writers, too, I've noticed).

Anonymous said...

I love MS&PW (but I never know how to spell their name so lets stop at that)! I read 2 of their mysteries and your review made me want to grab a third one

Emily Barton said...

Smithereens, if you read this one, I don't think you can go wrong. Which ones have you read? It seems that if I continue to read them, it might be good to start with those you've read.

Rebecca H. said...

Arg, I don't think comments are working ... but I'll try again. I think Asa stayed with Kollberg for fairly boring reasons: Kollberg was being nice. But it's significant that this is an example of kindness in a book that's so emotionally cold. Most of the group really liked the book, although we agreed with you about the portrayal of women. I think the protesters get brushed over because of the book's bleak attitude: what good could some protesters possibly do? They are just a nuisance.

By the way, our next book is Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, for Jan. 14th.