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The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall

The Laughing Policeman (1968)

by Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

Other authors: Per Wahlöö

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Martin Beck (4)

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1,221416,528 (3.92)59
Recently added bySara.Newhouse, private library, MaraBlaise, kmair08, cap43, dbsovereign, LT_Ammar



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English (32)  Danish (2)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (2)  Italian (1)  Catalan (1)  German (1)  All languages (41)
Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
Lately I've been feeling pretty guilty about slacking off in my college literature courses, so I've been going through my bookshelf to find things I was supposed to read but never did. In a dusty corner, I found both The Laughing Policeman and Never Look Back, which I'll be reading for my 2015 challenge. I guess that I did read part of this book, because I found a bookmark about a quarter of the way in, but I remembered literally nothing of the plot when I restarted it a couple days ago.

The setting of The Laughing Policeman is 1960's Stockholm, and an unknown gunman has just rocked the country with its first mass murder. Nine citizens are dead, including an off-duty police officer, and not a shred of evidence was left at the crime scene. The media is in a frenzy, the general public is panicking, and the police are stumped. It's not long before the killer is dubbed a madman, but police superintendent Martin Beck doesn't believe that fits with the careful and precise nature of the crime.

When it comes to Swedish novels, this is neither the best nor the worst that I've read this year. In fact, The Laughing Policeman is in a different sort of category than most of the mysteries I've read this year. It's very psychological, taking place in a time before computers, electronic databases, cell phones, and really any kind of advanced technology. Beck and his fellow detectives rely almost solely on their intuition and brainpower to solve this puzzle.

While The Laughing Policeman is overall a fine story, I did take issue with a few things.

For one, there are way too many detectives. I couldn't keep them all straight! We have Beck, of course, who is easy enough to differentiate from the rest. But then we also have Larsson, Kollberg, and a whole host of others whose names I don't even remember. There are far too many suspects, as well. I think at one point the detectives narrow it down to something like nineteen? And, of course, we're given all their life stories, which seems excessive in a book this short.

I found the treatment of women a little problematic, especially given that this book was written by a husband and wife duo. I understand that it was written in the 1960's, so I can't expect modern attitudes, but I can't think of a single female character who was described in a positive light. Most of the wives constantly complain and nag their husbands. The unmarried women are overwhelmingly described as promiscuous. Even when the women are greatly aiding in the investigation, it seems that they're looked down upon by the men.

I actually had to look up whether Sweden had a prohibition or temperance movement in the late 1960's because I think every character who's meant to be a bad person is an excessive drinker. The only thing I found relates to alcohol rations, so I can't see where this attitude comes from. The detectives actually ask things like "Well, was he a drinker?" or reference that a character was a teetotaler and therefore obviously not involved in any criminal activity. I personally am not a big drinker, but this particular use of alcohol stood out to me as unusual and kind of offensive.

Finally, nothing happens in the first 150 pages. Keep in mind that this book is only 211 pages. The plot does start ramping up in the last quarter, and suddenly, in the last ten pages, the brilliant detectives have figured everything out. I'm tempted to say that the ending falls into the deus ex machina category, because after about 175 pages of flailing around and utterly failing at their jobs, the detectives get one tip that miraculously resolves everything.

Overall, The Laughing Policeman is an average kind of book for me. If you're into police procedurals and dark Swedish novels, or if you're looking to expand your reading horizons, definitely give this one a shot. For just a casual mystery reader, there are definitely better uses of your time.

[see more of my reviews at the bibliophagist] ( )
  Sara.Newhouse | Feb 11, 2016 |
Setting the tone for some of the later Martin Beck novels, the opening of this book sees the Swedish police force distracted from its normal tasks by the much more entertaining pastime of beating up peaceful anti-Vietnam demonstrators outside the US embassy. But then Beck and his team are called in to investigate Sweden's first mass shooting incident: nine people have been shot on a Stockholm bus, one of them a detective from Beck's own squad. The absence of the shooter seems to rule out an American-style episode of random killing, whilst political terrorism doesn't figure either as a serious possibility (probably the most obvious thing that dates the book!), so the police are faced with a painstaking investigation into all the passengers and why they were there. It's maybe a bit of a detective story cliché that the mystery turns out to revolve around an old, unsolved case, but it's a typical Sjöwall & Wahlöö touch that there's a clue to this back-story that the investigators have missed the first time around by sheer bad luck... ( )
  thorold | Oct 30, 2015 |
I'm very happy to get back to the Martin Beck series, even if I was a little weirded out by the cover of this book. I'm not sure I've ever read a book with a huge assault rifle on the cover. The cover stands in stark contrast to the source of the title, a 1920s novely record called The Adventures of the Laughing Policeman.

The Laughing Policeman is a compact story about a horrible crime rife with social commentary. The political commentary seems to grow as the series goes on. The crime at the center of the story is the mass shooting of 9 people on a double decker bus on a cold rainy night on the border of Stockholm and the suburb of Solna, the same night that most of the police force is at an anti-Vietnam protest. One of the murder victims was Stenström, a young member of Beck's squad, but no one knows what he was doing on the bus.

The Martin Beck books tend to be heavy on the procedural part of a police procedural: it's not just interrogations, but it's scientific tests and strategy sessions. Because the crime was so large and garnered so much media attention, there are lots of characters as Beck's squad receives reinforcements from all over Sweden.

It's a compact story, which is a great change of pace. It feels quite contemporary, which speaks to the couple's influence on current crime writing. But parts of the story definitely place it in the 1960's: Gunnarson's rants are pretty retrograde, on purpose; and there is a bit of victim-blaming that reminded me very much to the first book in the series, Roseanna. This is my favorite entry in the series so far.
  rkreish | Jul 24, 2015 |
Warning: this review contains spoilers.


Nine people are dead on a double-decker bus in Stockholm, Sweden. One of them is a policeman, Ake Stenström. Naturally, the death of one of their own will spur the force to even greater investigative heights, but their main question is: what was he doing on that bus in the first place?

This was my first Martin Beck and remains my favourite so far. Alan Blair provides a generally solid translation, with only a few non-English constructions ("looking at TV", for instance), possibly left in to give the English a "foreign" feel. (On a side note, I imagine that must be a very difficult task for a literary translator, deciding how much to render idiomatically and how much to leave in a more unusual construction.) In terms of plot, this was realistic in its portrayal of a grinding, wearisome investigation, and the ending, to me, is perfect. I laughed too.

I definitely recommend this if you're interested in the Martin Beck series. It's the fourth book in the series, but I don't think it's strictly necessary to read the preceding volumes first. Maybe Roseanna, since it does refer to events in that book, but the references are peripheral and do not have much of a bearing on the main plot. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Jun 4, 2014 |
Before Stieg Larsson, before Jo Nesbø or Henning Mankell, Scandinavian crime fiction was dominated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, journalists and common-law married writing partners from Sweden. In the 1960s, the couple set about to write 10 books in 10 years, each 30 chapters long, which they plotted and researched together, then wrote alternate chapters. Because they intended the books as a critique of capitalist society, all the books in their original editions were given the subtitle "Report of a Crime" as a politically double-entendre phrase.

According to Wahlöö, their intention was to "use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type." The books (all of which have been adapted for film or TV), follow the exploits of detectives from the special homicide commission of the national police, centered around the character of Superintendent Martin Beck of the Homicide Squad. About their main policeman, Ms. Sjöwall said, "We wanted a credible, trustworthy Swedish civil servant with empathy and real concern." The books really should be read in sequential order because the characters of Beck, his family, and Beck's police colleagues change throughout the series.

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN was the only one in the series to win an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel, an honor bestowed in 1971. At the beginning of the book, police are off fighting peaceful Vietnam demonstrators and casually molest a girl demonstrator on her thirteenth birthday. Soon afterward, nine bus riders are gunned down by an unknown assassin on a cold and rainy Stockholm night. Unfortunately for Beck, the two inept patrolmen who stumbled upon the crime scene destroyed much of any useful evidence. The frenzied press, fishing for an explanation for the seemingly random crime, quickly dubs the killer a madman.

With his usual dogged determination, Beck suspects the culprit isn't a madman, after all, upon discovering the apparently motiveless killer has managed to target one of Beck′s best detectives, Ake Stenstrom. But far too many questions remain: why was Stenstrom on that particular bus that night? Why was he sitting next to a young, female nurse? After Beck works with the murdered detective's girlfriend, he's able to piece together his activites right before his murder. Soon enough it becomes clear that Stenstrom was working off the books, and that the attack may be connected to an unsolved cold case.

The Beck novels are filled with brooding, multi-dimensional characters and the settings are equally gritty and dour, pointing out the dark underbelly of Swedish culture and clearly foreshadowing Larsson. There are also other parallels: Sjöwall/Wahlöö and Larsson wrote against the sub-class treatment of women in society, as well as the failings of the capitalistic system to protect its most vulnerable citizens. ( )
  BVLawson | May 13, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (80 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Maj Sjöwallprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wahlöö, Permain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wahlöö, Persecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abella, ManuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Arıt, AydınTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Berf, PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blair, AlanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blair, AlanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Čemerinskogo, GennadijaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Deutsch, MichelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ding, ShijiaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Font i Mateu, LaiaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Franzen, JonathanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Goos, MarluceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hoff, TrulsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jalonen, KariTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jørgensen, Grete JuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kosenko, NikolajaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Larsstuvold, RuneForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lexell, MartinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nielsen, BjarneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Olszańska, MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rowe, MaryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schultz, EckehardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weiner, TomNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zatti, RenatoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Z̆ilina, MiloslavTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On the evening of the thirteenth of November it was pouring in Stockholm.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679742239, Paperback)

In this classic police procedural, the ever-dyspeptic Martin Beck has nothing to be amused about, even though it's Christmastime. Åke Stenstrom, a young detective in Beck's squad, has just been killed in an unprecedented mass murder aboard a Stockholm city bus. Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did he push a murderer too far in his efforts to make a name for himself on the force? Realizing that Stenstrom's presence on the bus was no mere coincidence, his compatriots retrace his steps and chase years-old clues to a crime long thought unsolvable. Along with Roseanna, this is one of the best of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's ten Martin Beck mysteries.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:44 -0400)

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Superintendent Martin Beck seeks the murderer of nine passengers on a Stockholm bus, one of whom was his best detective.

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