The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Best Novel; 1971)
By Abby EndlerMay 3, 2019
Sweden invades the Edgar Awards! Learn more about 1971's Best Novel!
For a Scandinavian crime fiction devotee like yours truly, no author’s legacy looms larger than that of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose Martin Beck books are largely considered the launching point for the Nordic Noir sub-genre. Writing in the 1960s and 1970s, husband and wife duo Sjöwall and Wahlöö broke new ground in the crime genre. Following melancholic detective Martin Beck of the Swedish police force, Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s series not only delved deep into the lives and psyches of its characters, but it also delivered an equally up-close-and-personal examination of Swedish society—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The social consciousness of the Martin Beck books became a hallmark of the series, and, subsequently, of an entire genre. The legacy of this husband and wife duo cannot be overstated, and as a reader passionate about this genre—both its history and its current state—I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read and review Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Edgar Award-winning novel The Laughing Policeman, Book 4 in the acclaimed Martin Beck series, for Criminal Element’s Edgar Award series. Originally published in Sweden in 1968, and subsequently translated into English in 1970, The Laughing Policeman is a clever and brooding procedural—a story steeped in its era, yet accessible and engaging to the modern reader, too.
In The Laughing Policeman, a mass murder on public transportation leads to the unexpected resurfacing of a cold case—and to the tragic death of one of the police department’s own. It’s a rainy night in Sweden, and detective Martin Beck is wrapping up a visit with a friend (and avoiding being called in to help contain a group protesting the Vietnam War) when a gruesome crime occurs. A gunman has opened fire on a city bus, killing eight passengers and severely wounding another. To make matters worse, one of the deceased is a young, up-and-coming police officer—a man with a bright career ahead of him and a fiancé at home waiting for his safe return. Martin Beck and his team are called to investigate the brutal crime. But the circumstances surrounding their deceased colleague’s presence on the bus are puzzling. What business did he have on this city bus late at night? Why was he carrying his service weapon? And why was his fiancé under the impression that he had been working long hours, when work had, in reality, been slow? The deeper Martin digs into this gruesome crime, the more he begins to suspect that the mass murder was a cover-up for a very targeted hit on his colleague’s life—one with ties to a cold case that his colleague may have been tied up in.
No one writes atmosphere and gloom quite like Scandinavian crime writers. From page one of The Laughing Policeman, readers will find themselves wrapped up in the melancholy atmosphere of Martin Beck’s world. The city, the weather, and even Martin himself seem weighed down by a certain heaviness of existence that seeps into this book’s every page. This is a somber story, and everything from its pacing to its characters’ inner lives tends to reflect this quality. However, the authors are experts at keeping an almost clinical detachment from the gloom that could otherwise overtake this mystery; they balance emotion with procedure, always airing on the side of restraint when it comes to their characters’ emotional lives. There are flashes of humanity and raw emotion here—particularly involving the deceased police officer’s fiancé, and one truly heartbreaking scene early on in our mystery where Martin fears that his good friend may be the police officer murdered on the bus—but the majority of this story is geared towards a measured consideration of the circumstances in which our characters find themselves. There’s nothing flashy about the way Sjöwall and Wahlöö write—they simply drop readers into a rainy night in the heart of Sweden, and unfurl a story that is spare and unfussy, even while grappling with tragedy.
At the heart of The Laughing Policeman is a superb police procedural. I will forewarn you: if you’re not a fan of slow-burning, layered, detail-oriented procedurals, you may wish to turn back now! This book very likely won’t work for you. If, however, you appreciate the meticulous plotting and clever imagination that goes into writing a no-frills detective story (which I know I do!), you will find Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s work superb. The Laughing Policeman primarily centers around the day-to-day work of Martin and his team as they painstakingly investigate the mass murder on the city bus, and ultimately turn their attention to the activities of their now-deceased colleague prior to his death. It involves an extensive cast of characters, and a heavily layered plot—one that demands close attention be paid in order to keep plot threads and characters straight. It is, in other words, a classic procedural—and a superbly plotted one at that, as it relies on the deductive skills of its characters, rather than flashy “twists” or out-of-thin-air technological discoveries, to solve its central mystery. As a reader accustomed to modern mysteries, it’s striking to read a book that doesn’t rely on 21st Century forensic science or technology to solve its central crime—and I have to say, it was a true breath of fresh air. Without the bells and whistles of modern technology, this crime novel felt pared down to its most essential parts: a team of detectives working together, using their experience and intelligence to solve a layered mystery. The Laughing Policeman felt tied to reality in this realm, too: the police officers we meet aren’t “superhuman” characters, but rather ordinary individuals doing their best at their jobs. If you’re craving some realism in your next crime read, you’ll find this element of The Laughing Policeman right up your alley.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are two of the “greats” of the Scandinavian crime fiction genre, and their masterful procedural The Laughing Policeman is proof of exactly why. Their restraint and precision shine through in this story, delivering the kind of clever puzzle that will perfectly suit the reader looking for a classic mystery to cozy up with over the weekend. As an added bonus, readers of modern Scandinavian crime fiction will relish the story’s rich atmosphere and melancholy characters. Though there certainly are components of this story that feel distinctly tied to its era, the perennial appeal of this book can be found in its impeccable plotting and compelling central mystery. An intelligent procedural with a social consciousness, The Laughing Policeman withstands the test of time.
Notes from the 1971 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were Shaun Herron for The Hound and the Fox and the Harper, Donald E. Westlake for The Hot Rock, Patricia Moyes for Many Deadly Returns, Margaret Millar for Beyond this Point are Monsters, and Pat Stadley for Autumn of a Hunter.
- The Edgar for Best Motion Picture went to Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, and the award for Best Television Episode went to Berlin Affair which aired as NBC’s Movie of the Week.
- Best First Novel went to Lawrence Sanders for The Anderson Tapes. He beat out Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, Sidney Sheldon’s The Naked Face, Stanley Cohen’s Taking Gary Feldman, and J.E. Brown’s Incident at 125th Street.
- Other notable 1970 wins include Maragret Finn Brown, who won Best Short Story for “In the Forrests of Riga the Beasts are Very Wild Indeed.” Dan J. Marlowe’s Flashpoint won Best Paperback Original, and John Rowe Townsend received Best Juvenile for The Intruder.
- The 1971 Grand Master was Mignon C. Eberhart.
- The Raven Award was presented to Judith Crist for Reader of the Year.
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Join us again next Friday when Pritpaul Bains takes us through a memorable game of cat and mouse in 1972’s well-known The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.