The Curmudgeon


Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Story of a Crime

A long time ago I saw a Hollywood film about a murder investigation, imaginatively titled An Investigation of Murder. I remember almost nothing about it, except that it starred Walter Matthau and seemed pretty seedy; but a little later I came across a paperback in one of the second-hand stalls which served to absorb the greater part of my income before the internet arrived. The paperback sported a picture of Matthau in a raincoat and a grumpy look, pointing an automatic at person or persons undepicted; the title was The Laughing Policeman Filmed As An Investigation Of Murder; and the authors were Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Apparently they wrote alternate chapters.

It averaged about one misprint per page, but the book made a far greater impression than the film had done. The authors, a married couple, were Swedes, and the story is set in Stockholm in the late 1960s. It opens with a terse depiction of an anti-Vietnam War demonstration being broken up by police outside the US embassy:

The police were equipped with tear-gas, bombs, pistols, whips, truncheons, cars, motorcycles, shortwave radios, battery megaphones, riot dogs and hysterical horses. The demonstrators were armed with a letter and cardboard signs, which grew more and more sodden in the pelting rain.

A little further on, the deadpan narrator mentions the policemen feeling up the girls as they bundle them into the vans, and the fact that some of those questioned may have suffered a little because one patrolman was hit by a bottle "and somebody must have thrown it." So much for democratic socialism.

The murder case in The Laughing Policeman is a spectacular one. Nine people on a night-time bus are machine-gunned, and the victims include a young detective from the Stockholm police, whose business in being there nobody seems to know. The difficulties in sifting the evidence are exacerbated by the doings of Kristiansson and Kvant, two six-foot blond patrolmen whose outward resemblance to recruiting-poster paragons is accompanied by superb, bone-headed incompetence. Eventually it turns out that the massacre on the bus is not just one case but two, and that in order to solve the more recent crime the detectives have to complete an investigation that was abandoned many years before.

The Laughing Policeman is the fourth in a series featuring the detectives of the Stockholm homicide squad. Unlike most series, it was planned as a whole: a ten-volume, three-hundred-chapter roman fleuve published between 1965 and 1975 under the collective title The Story of a Crime. This title has been omitted from the otherwise exemplary Harper Perennial reprints in favour of the more anodyne The Martin Beck Series. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were Marxists, and although they never thump the tub it is obvious that the crime in question is the hypocrisy of Swedish society, the abandonment of its most vulnerable citizens to pointless, ugly lives of drink, drugs and casual sex, and the corruption hinted at in that scene outside the American embassy. Later in the series, a highly successful businessman is assassinated during dinner at the Savoy hotel; as the investigation unfolds it emerges that the victim was something rather less than an adornment to the human race, while the murderer, though hardly an avenging angel, is an unfortunate individual who has some justification in blaming the businessman for the ruin of his life. Like Josef Skvorecky's Lieutenant Boruvka, Martin Beck tends to feel depressed and even ill after winding up a case; in the earlier books it appears that this is largely because his work keeps him away from his unhappy home, but in Murder at the Savoy (another anodyne title, substituted for a Swedish play on a chant about policemen and pigs), his personal situation has improved, and his depression has more to do with the human agony he has uncovered and the unfairness of the society he is employed to help function.

Although Beck is the main focus of the series, he is neither a lone operator nor an inspired renegade; besides constantly emphasising the amount of time and patience spent knocking on doors, dealing with bureaucracy, or simply waiting, the books are ensemble pieces which never lose sight of the fact that police investigations are co-operative enterprises involving large numbers of professional people. There is Melander, an outstandingly dull, uxorious pipe-smoker, notable for remembering everything he has ever seen in print and for being in the lavatory; there is Gunvald Larsson, a glowering ex-sailor with a liking for expensive clothes and cheap fiction and a penchant for kicking down doors and occasionally beating up a suspect; there is Kollberg, my favourite, an overweight, sensual, sarcastic glutton who is Beck's most trusted confederate, hates guns and displays ham-fisted rudeness and unexpected sensitivity in approximately equal measure; and there are the aforementioned Kristiansson and Kvant, whose inability to do anything right is matched only by their ill luck in repeatedly running across the choleric Larsson. There are others too, all of whom acquire extra depth and interest as the series progresses.

The first six volumes of the series are now in print, with fine introductions from eminent crime novelists; the seventh and eighth are scheduled to come out in August, and the last two in December. Maj Sjöwall is still alive; her husband Per Wahlöö died in 1975, shortly after the completion of the tenth volume, The Terrorists.


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