Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review: The Laughing Policeman

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This book was an enjoyable combination of decent plot, good characters, and great style.

It is a murder mystery set in Stockholm. It sucks you in right away, starting with a pretty gripping description of the shooting of nine people on a double-decker bus late at night in a remote part of the city. Two less-than-enthusiastic patrolmen from the bordering suburb of Solna stumble across the bus first and trample all over the scene, eliminating many of the clues.

To make matters worse, one of the murdered passengers turns out to be an off-duty member of the homicide squad who had no discernable reason for being on that bus.

The case, naturally, becomes a red ball for the Stockholm P.D. and you spend the rest of the book watching the stressed-out detectives solve the crime.

It was neat to read a mystery set in Stockholm. I got to see not only the Swedish police but also a bit of Swedish culture from the inside. Stockholm becomes not a glamorous European destination but a big gritty city. Northern and southern Swedish accents set peers apart, make them feel inferior. Americans even start to look a little bit different.

The team of Stockholm detectives is made up of distinctive, believable characters. You see the story from almost every detective’s point of view and you see how confused and frustrated they all are.

The book was originally written in Swedish but I don’t think it’s the translation to the English that makes the writing style so entertaining. The authors (a husband and wife team) use matter-of-fact, uncomplicated sentences that are just a little bit quirky. This is the description of the patrol route the uninspired Solna patrolmen chose before they ran across the bus – a route designed to avoid running into anything that might actually require policing:
“It was a brilliantly thought-out course, leading through areas which were almost guaranteed empty of people. They met not a single car the whole way and saw only two living creatures, first a cat and then another cat.”
Often what the authors will do is start out with a really short sentence that has only basic information in it. Then they’ll repeat the sentence, making it a little bit longer by elaborating just a little bit. And then they’ll do that again… and again. Until after about five sentences, you have this really long sentence with all kinds of crazy detail in it that is a hundred times more informative than the original sentence. It’s like they’re reluctant to tell the story but can’t help letting it dribble out in spite of themselves.

There were a couple things about the book that were annoying. For one thing, sometimes key pieces of information would be withheld from me and then would be revealed by the policeman I’d been following without me even knowing that he’d been doing any extra investigation. I don’t mind surprises but I like at least knowing that there’s something I don’t know. This felt like my characters were sneaking around behind my back.

And, frankly, the motives of the culprit, some of the victims, and the dead policeman’s girlfriend, all of which were key to the plot, seemed a bit dicey and unrealistic.

But I got over that.

1 comment:

Priyanka said...

I had no idea that you were into Per and Maj as well. I read four of their books in a row and now am on a break. Hope to get back to some of their other creations soon.

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