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January 28, 2013

“The Laughing Policeman”

by Anne Paddock

Mass murders seem to be an American specialty.  And the compendium gives some plausible theories as to why it is so…the glorification of violence..the career-centered society. The sale of firearms by mail order …

The Laughing Policeman was written by Maj Sjowall and her husband Per Wahloo in 1970 although the book could have very well been written in the 21st century and still be relevant.  The setting is Sweden, a small Scandinavian country in northern Europe that borders Finland and Norway. With a population of about 10 million, Sweden is widely considered to be a safe country (there were only 18 homicides (0.19 per 100,000 population) by firearms in 2010 while the United States recorded 11,078 firearm homicides (3.6 per 100,000 population)) the same year. So when a “person with a Suomi sub-machine gun model 37 fires 68 rounds of ammunition into nine people on a public transportation bus on a cold November night in 1967 on a deserted street in downtown Stockholm, the people of the country are shocked. Mass murders are not supposed to happen in Sweden.

Martin Beck, a 23-year veteran of the police force and a superintendent of the homicide squad and his partner Kollberg are assigned the mass murder case along with a supporting cast of investigative police officers. When asked “do you think that his maniacal act was inspired by what has happened in America, for instance?,” the police spokesperson can only reply “don’t know.” The idea of a mass murder in Stockholm is so foreign to the police force they naturally conclude the deed was done by a madman and turn to psychologists for a profile of the killer.

Eight seemingly unrelated people are dead and one is hanging on by a thread in the hospital when Beck and Kollberg decide to investigate each victim to see if the real intention of the killer was to eliminate one of them , making the other victims in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although the investigation is thorough, the reader can’t help but think Beck, Kollberg and the other officers assigned to the case are a bunch of bumbling idiots. Ironically, they all think highly of themselves (but not always each other) and believe “the crux of the problem is, of course the paradox that the police profession in itself calls for the highest intelligence and exceptional mental, physical and moral qualities in its practicians but has nothing to attract persons who possess them.” That they may be part of the problem never occurs to them individually.

The Laughing Policeman is more than the story of a mass murder and two police officers who think highly of themselves though. It’s a story that exposes the negative aspects of a society – cynicism, violence, ineptitude, narcissism, consumerism – in a country considered safer and with a higher quality of life than most other countries of the world. Sjowall and Wahloo do a masterful job of telling a story that is a whodunit while exposing the darkest (and most dimwitted)  parts of human nature. While the officers never lose sight of believing the gunman had a motive, neither do they realize the wheel cannot be reinvented. Read the book to the very last sentence because just when the reader thinks the mystery is solved and the story is over, a most satisfying twist is revealed.

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