The fourth novel in Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series of Marxian police procedurals. Set in Sweden in the 1960s and 70s, the Beck series are both page turning detective stories, and indictments of what the writers viewed as a society full of liberal promise on the surface, but rotten on the inside.
The Laughing Policeman is the fourth novel in the series (and the only one to win an Edgar). It focuses on the investigation surrounding a mass shooting on a bus which killed seven people, including one of Beck’s colleagues in the police force. The mystery here is of the Easter egg type — where the solving of one opens up others, and as with all the Beck novels, it’s compelling enough. But what makes this and the rest of the series so special isn’t the plot, it’s the characters. The obsessive Beck, the socialist policeman Kollberg, and others. They’re wonderfully drawn and tell us about what it means to live in a Sweden of both social democracy and profound social ills. A place where ostensibly the state cares for all, but in reality, child prostitution flourishes.
In the Beck series focus on character, and social ills, against the backdrop of hardboiled crime, we have the beginnings of so-called ” Scandinavian noir” and the obvious inspiration for writers like Henning Mankell and Steig Larson. Both of whom I love, by the way, but neither of whom have prose as clipped and clean, or books as perfectly plotted, as Sjowall and Wahloo. If you liked the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and I did) then go back to this series, the source of the style, its worth it.