Crime in a cold climate
The Laughing Policeman By Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Harper Perennial, 248pp, $ 19.99 The Man on the Balcony By Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Harper Perennial, 248pp, $ 19.99
WHEN the first of the now 10- book Martin Beck series appeared in 1965, suddenly the streets of Stockholm appeared mean; where realist style cops, ordinary guys with personal problems, investigated terrible crimes. Written by a Swedish husbandand- wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the series defined and refined the procedural crime novel. Committed to their Marxist- humanist ideology, Sjowall and Wahloo used the genre to examine the social and political realities of a Sweden regarded throughout the world as a model socialist state.
The third in the series, The Laughing Policeman , is laced with moments such as, ‘‘ It goes quite without saying that as a private person and a conservative I don’t make the slightest discrimination among people on account of colour, race or opinion. But you just imagine a police force swarming with Jews and communists. You see what I mean, don’t you?’’
That’s Ullholm, the ultra- reactionary detective in Beck’s team. The Laughing Policeman ( it was a 1970s Hollywood movie) has the cops wondering why, on a dark and rainy night, a man might machinegun the passengers of a number 47 bus. There are eight dead and another seriously wounded. One of the dead, Inspector Ake Stenstrom, worked with Martin Beck. Why was Stenstrom on that bus? While waiting, hoping, to extract vital information from the comatose survivor, Beck’s colleagues check the past of each victim. As the story builds there’s a gathering belief that Asa Torrell, the dead inspector’s betrothed, holds the key to this extraordinary crime.
A dead cop means all hands on deck and so Sjowall and Wahloo were able to write all their characters into the one investigation. Halfway through the book, the reader still has no idea who did the dirty deed. There hasn’t been much action either. Still, the writing is compelling. Which is why the series, long revered by crime fiction aficionados, has been reissued, with copious notes on the authors and Martin Beck’s 10 exploits at the back of each volume.
Police work can be slow, hazardous, its conclusions dubious. Tracking procedure, we are presented with a representation of Swedish society. This is Sjowall and Wahloo’s purpose. They understand that a police force is one of those rare institutions through which an author might present a credible picture of class, gender and ideological interaction.
The investigation seems to get nowhere. One officer, Ronn, clings obstinately to a word and a name recorded on tape just before the wounded man dies in hospital. Another, Melander, retains extraordinarily clear images of the corpses on the bus. Eventually, indeed brilliantly, these fragments are brought together — there is the explanation, here the arrest.
The books are far from being the kind of carbon copies of each other frequently found in a crime series, yet of course there are similarities. And always, emphatically, the investigation of some puzzling crime points to all not being as it should in the Swedish state.
The Man on the Balcony , first published in 1967, is particularly disturbing since, while we readers are following a police investigation, there is someone out there raping and killing young girls.
Worse, a woman who had rung in to report her suspicion regarding the intentions of the man across the road was rudely dismissed by the police officer taking the call.
Something about that phone incident had lodged itself in Martin Beck’s mind. But what was that something? Meanwhile, a mugger, Rolf Lundgren, is arrested. Will Rolf’s description of a man he saw near the water tower prove useful? Those are the basics of this story, and it’s a great story. But the real and attention- grabbing elements of the story are still shaped by the interactions of the characters and the degree to which each individual’s responses to life are limited by psychological type and a narrow world view.
Plus, of course, there are more occasional comments on our general condition. ‘‘ He [ Beck] doubted whether this was a concern of the police at all. Drug- taking among young people was caused by a catastrophic philosophy which had been provoked by the prevailing system. Consequently society should be duty bound to produce an effective counter- argument. One that was not based on smugness and more police officers.’’ Painter and author Robin Wallace- Crabbe writes crime thrillers as Robert Wallace.