Sunday, December 02, 2007

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman

'The Laughing Policeman' (1968) by Maj Sjöwall and Per WahlööNoticed a few weeks back that Tim Peters -- resident poker book reviewer over at CardPlayer -- had posted something on his blog regarding a Swedish crime novelist named Henning Mankell (whom Peters recommends). Tim’s post put me in mind of the only Swedish crime fiction with which I’m familiar, that series of “Martin Beck police mysteries” co-written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö during the late 60s and early 70s.

I have all ten of the married couple’s novels. Read ’em all a good while back. Thanks to Tim, I found myself pulling one -- The Laughing Policeman -- off the shelf a couple of days ago. And I was glad I did.

The novel was much better than I had remembered -- smart, witty, and quite gripping. All ten of the novels had kind of melded together in my memory. The plots -- all concerning various crimes occurring in Stockholm and being investigated by the same group of characters -- are presented sequentially, with references in later novels to events in earlier ones.

The Martin Beck mysteries fall into that category of hard-boiled fiction known as “police procedurals” -- sort of like those 87th Precinct novels that Evan Hunter/Ed McBain began writing back in the 50s. (In fact, I believe Wahlöö might’ve translated some McBain novels into Swedish at one point.) The couple apparently had planned a series of ten novels from the start, and they were able to reach their goal before Wahlöö’s death in 1975. A lot of the novels, including The Laughing Policeman, have been adapted into films, though I haven’t seen any of those.

The stories are primarily told from the perspective of one detective, Martin Beck, although he sometimes fades into the background as others feature more prominently in certain investigations. In addition to some highly clever plotting and character development, you also get a provocative dose of social commentary along the way. Wahlöö once claimed the pair “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.” This interview with Sjowall sheds further light on the couple’s intentions with the series.

I knew I had liked The Laughing Policeman, but had forgotten how absorbing the plot was. A strange puzzle. Starts with nine seemingly unconnected people being summarily gunned down on a public bus. Rest of the novel tries to sort out what happened. One of the victims, Åke Stenström, is actually a cop -- a member of the Stockholm department (a friend of Beck and the others). Toward the latter half there is some discussion of whether Stenström might have been independently working on an otherwise cold case, and in fact might have been following or “shadowing” someone when he was killed.

“You can shadow in two ways,” says one of the detectives, Lennart Kollberg. “Either you follow a person as invisibly as possible, to find out what he’s up to. Or else you follow him quite openly, to drive him to desperation and to make him do something rash and give himself away.” Stenström, Kollberg goes on to say, had “mastered the art of both methods.”

Don’t want to get too carried away with the poker analogies -- after all, one of the reasons why we like poker so much is (it seems) we can compare it to anything -- but I found myself thinking about this notion of “shadowing” when at the online tables yesterday. In a way, we’re all shadowing each other while we play, sometimes keeping out of the way as we try to learn what kind of player our opponent is (“to find out what he’s up to”), and sometimes more conspicuously in the effort to outplay our opponent (“to make him do something rash”).

I suppose what might’ve encouraged such thinking was the fact that I was playing on Bodog, where a spotlight is literally shown on the player whose turn it is to act. (See that first “Life in the Loony Bin” post from a couple of weeks ago where I’ve included a somewhat doctored screen shot of the new Bodog interface.) While the player ponders his next move, the rest of us wait in the shadows, taking notes, scheming how best to make the player “give himself away” . . . .

Might have to go back and again work my way through the whole series -- Roseanna (1965), The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966), The Man on the Balcony (1967), The Laughing Policeman (1968), The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969), Murder at the Savoy (1970), The Abominable Man (1971), The Locked Room (1972), Cop Killer (1974), and The Terrorists (1975).

For now, though, I believe I’ll leave the shadowing to others and instead go watch Chocolade Haas one more time. (Thanks, Iggy.)

(By the way . . . for any of you who also happened to watch the video Iggy linked to over on Guinness and Poker and were curious like me about the song: I ended up poking around the intertubes and found this page where one can listen to the entire piece -- Nathan Larson’s “Aviva Pastoral.” From what I can tell, it looks like the song was first recorded for Todd Solondz’ 2004 film Palindromes. Haunting.)

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