Friday, April 29, 2016

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Title: The Laughing Policeman
Author: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Publisher: P.A. Norstedt & Soners Forlag (1968)
English Translation: Alan Blair (Vintage Books)

Here we are, back to our translations and still riding the international theme train. However, this is a first for me in that I've previously not read any "scandy" crime fiction. Yeah, that's right, I'm already in with the lingo which I learned from my local second hand bookseller. When I called up to ask about this title he said, "No sorry I don't have that one. The scandy crime is so popular these days I can't keep the titles in." If you're a scandy crime lover, feel free to comment below with your favorite.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Laughing Policeman 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

On a rainy night in Stockholm a protest has descended into riot when the police over-police. At the same time, a gunman kills nine people on a bus. When one of those victims turns out to be a cop, his fellow detectives aren't convinced the standard random act of a madman explanation will serve to solve this crime.

Unlike us, the American psychologists have no lack of material to work on.
The title, much like the novel, is a piss-take while, at the same time, it's clear the authors never lose sight of the fact that they are taking pokes at a genre they love.

He held out his hand with some hesitation and for safety's sake kept his glove on. 

What works:
The tone, the jibes, the POV, the dialogue, the character descriptions, it all works. Despite the gruesome nature of what is definitely a procedural, humor rolls off the page. I laughed out loud multiple times, and up through the very end. There's no point at which a corner is turned and the authors are like: ok, time to get serious. It's all serious. It's just that it's all funny, too. I don't want to imply that this is in any way the masterpiece that Galaxy Quest is but it's obvious that the authors have full love and appreciation for the genre which has granted them the expertise to highlight the foibles of the genre (and this is easily picked up by me, a lightweight in the detective genre so I assume seasoned readers will get even more).

Sadly, it must be described as unfortunate that another spot-on aspect of the book is its topicality. It's not exactly contemporary with a 1968 pub date (no cell phones, no computers finding faces, no PCR, no digital records to cross-check, no CCTV) but it was chilling that some lines seemed word for word from the mouths of many citizens and police forces currently grappling with community policing and gun violence. Let's hope it doesn't take another 50 years to solve some of these problems.

But even to someone with Ronn's uncomplicated outlook, this Ullholm stood out as a monster of nagging tedium and reactionary stupidity. 

And while I don't have any specific comment to make in regards to crime psychology I love how it seems to be a universal feature of detective novels of the late 60s and 70s.  

What doesn't:
It's actually a bit boring. Once the crime is established not much happens until almost the halfway point. While not a long book it's not short either at 250+ pages so having what felt like a third of it meander along revealing not much got a bit boring. Thankfully there were still some laughs in that part.

For all the beautifully executed satire it was sorely lacking in any subversion of the role of women in detective novels. The women were almost wholly used as naggers and receptacles. Bit of a missed opportunity there I would say. 

And don't get me started on how we ended up here:

...born at some unpronounceable place the name of which I've forgotten.

While seemingly business as usual with the other jokes, it's not actually. I'm reading a translation and am not familiar at all with the Swedish language so while I see all the Swedish names as unpronounceable babble the above line and attitude isn't a joke for the book's original audience. 

And, finally, a nitpicky PSA for authors everywhere: it's easier for dogs to track scents in wet environments. I happen to know this because I have a friend who trains tracking dogs but also it's easy to find on the internet (and probably would have been easy to find with a little research in a library back in 1968). I see the raining = dogs-no-good mistake all the time. Why doesn't anyone look this up? 

Solid plot and loads of laughs for detective novel fans but a few things that'll make you go hmmm.

(format h/t: AW)

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Deliverance by James Dickey


  1. Can't disagree with anything you've said, Rachel. Outside of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', this is the only other "Scandy" crime fiction I've read. But I can see where Stieg Larsson took inspiration from. Yes, the humor was a highlight and in fact offset some of the boring parts -- though I was surprised that I could be that from an Edgar award winning novel of only about 250 pages. Of course, we were jumping into the fourth book in the series and I suspect some of the backstory of the characters went right past us.

    Still, it was an interesting enough police procedural. And I can see some of the lack of female character development as its own impetus for Larson's eventual treatise of men who hate women in his Swedish crime trilogy. I'm glad I read this first before seeing the film adaptation. Think it would have been harder the other way around, if had done. Luckily, this was also my initial screening of the movie distillation. In both cases, they were eye-opening, though each had their tedious moments.

    Hope you find a copy of the movie to view. Can't wait to hear your thoughts about the translation from the tumultuous "Seventies", Rachel. Thanks.

  2. It really was weird for such a short book to have so many boring parts, huh? It was a quick read though so luckily you're not stuck in those parts for long. I have to say, though, it didn't exactly make me want to run out and find more scandy crime to devour. Course I ought not judge the whole subgenre on just one title. :)

    Still haven't come by the movie but I'm hoping to soon.