Lately I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about slacking off in my college literature courses, so I’ve been going through my bookshelf to find things I was supposed to read but never did. In a dusty corner, I found both The Laughing Policeman and Never Look Back, which I’ll be reading for my 2015 challenge. I guess that I did read part of this book, because I found a bookmark about a quarter of the way in, but I remembered literally nothing of the plot when I restarted it a couple days ago.
The setting of The Laughing Policeman is 1960’s Stockholm, and an unknown gunman has just rocked the country with its first mass murder. Nine citizens are dead, including an off-duty police officer, and not a shred of evidence was left at the crime scene. The media is in a frenzy, the general public is panicking, and the police are stumped. It’s not long before the killer is dubbed a madman, but police superintendent Martin Beck doesn’t believe that fits with the careful and precise nature of the crime.
When it comes to Swedish novels, this is neither the best nor the worst that I’ve read this year. In fact, The Laughing Policeman is in a different sort of category than most of the mysteries I’ve read this year. It’s very psychological, taking place in a time before computers, electronic databases, cell phones, and really any kind of advanced technology. Beck and his fellow detectives rely almost solely on their intuition and brainpower to solve this puzzle.
While The Laughing Policeman is overall a fine story, I did take issue with a few things.
For one, there are way too many detectives. I couldn’t keep them all straight! We have Beck, of course, who is easy enough to differentiate from the rest. But then we also have Larsson, Kollberg, and a whole host of others whose names I don’t even remember. There are far too many suspects, as well. I think at one point the detectives narrow it down to something like nineteen? And, of course, we’re given all their life stories, which seems excessive in a book this short.
I found the treatment of women a little problematic, especially given that this book was written by a husband and wife duo. I understand that it was written in the 1960’s, so I can’t expect modern attitudes, but I can’t think of a single female character who was described in a positive light. Most of the wives constantly complain and nag their husbands. The unmarried women are overwhelmingly described as promiscuous. Even when the women are greatly aiding in the investigation, it seems that they’re looked down upon by the men.
I actually had to look up whether Sweden had a prohibition or temperance movement in the late 1960’s because I think every character who’s meant to be a bad person is an excessive drinker. The only thing I found relates to alcohol rations, so I can’t see where this attitude comes from. The detectives actually ask things like “Well, was he a drinker?” or reference that a character was a teetotaler and therefore obviously not involved in any criminal activity. I personally am not a big drinker, but this particular use of alcohol stood out to me as unusual and kind of offensive.
Finally, nothing happens in the first 150 pages. Keep in mind that this book is only 211 pages. The plot does start ramping up in the last quarter, and suddenly, in the last ten pages, the brilliant detectives have figured everything out. I’m tempted to say that the ending falls into the deus ex machinacategory, because after about 175 pages of flailing around and utterly failing at their jobs, the detectives get one tip that miraculously resolves everything.
Overall, The Laughing Policeman is an average kind of book for me. If you’re into police procedurals and dark Swedish novels, or if you’re looking to expand your reading horizons, definitely give this one a shot. For just a casual mystery reader, there are definitely better uses of your time.
Final rating: ★★★☆☆