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The Laughing Policeman

The Laughing Policeman - Maj Sjöwall;Per Wahlöö 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 question 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.

Tragically, like Larsson, who died at age 50 of a heart attack, Wahlöö had an untimely death in 1975 from cancer at the age of 48. Also, since Sjöwall and Wahlöö never married and he never legally adopted her daughter, she hasn't earned any royalties from the books, in the same way Larsson's common-law partner of 30 years, Eva Gabrielsson, has been shut out of any money from Larsson's estate.