Is this the best police procedural ever written? The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

Late one rainy night in Stockholm, a gunman boards a double decker bus and kills everyone on board.  He leaves no clues behind.  No hint at his motive or identity.  Just victims.  And questions with no answers.

As soon as Superintendent Martin Beck of the Stockholm Homicide Squad begins his investigation he finds that one of the victims was a member of his own squad.  What was a homicide detective doing on a bus in that neighborhood at that time of night?  Is the murder somehow connected to him?  Was the dead detective, in fact, the killer’s target?

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is considered a classic of detective fiction, a prime example of the police procedural.  The book’s reputation is well deserved.  Sjowall and Wahloo populate their novel with characters that run the gamut of Stockholm society circa 1970.  A multiple murder, the worst on in Stockholm’s history, with random victims allows the authors to send their detectives into many  levels of society.  It’s surprising who one will find on a bus late at night.  Everyone has a story.

Of course, the investigation eventually takes the reader into Stockholm’s underworld.  If you think Scandinavia is a land of clean, well-ordered people, that’s not what you’ll find in The Laughing Policeman.  The dead detective was using his free time to investigate the murder of a sixteen-year-old Portuguese prostitute.  He hoped to solve this decade old case thereby making is reputation.  Now, his work is the only possible lead Beck has into his own murder.

 The Laughing Policeman satisfies on several levels.  It is expertly plotted.  A crime without any clues is a tough place to start from, but the authors create a plot that remains entirely believable as it becomes more complicated.  The characters are all those one expects to find in a detective novel, but while familiar they are fully fleshed and likable–well, enjoyable if not always likable.  The prose, translated  from the Swedish by Alan Blair is as terse as it should be–to the point, no nonsense, full of dialogue that illustrates the procedure used to solve the crime.  There are no quirky characters in The Laughing Policeman.  If you want a mystery with recipes or funny next door neighbors, look elsewhere.

The Laughing Policeman gives the reader a glimpse into life in Sweden.  Not the life one will find in a guidebook.  Scandinavia looks like it may soon become the next big thing in literature, detective literature at least.  The other day I saw a counter display of Swedish mysteries at my local bookstore.  I’ve not read enough of them to say how important The Laughing Policeman is in the world of Scandinavian mystery novels.  I can say that it is an excellent book and a very entertaining read.


I  first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  Back then I read all ten of the Martin Beck series which took me a couple of years, but was well worth it.  Since I am the only person you know who has read all ten books, I think I can say that with some confidence, I can tell you that if you only read one Per Wahloo/Maj Sjowall book this is the one to read.  All ten of the books are excellent, but this one is probably the best.  It’s also the one I’m keeping to read again one day..

2 thoughts on “Is this the best police procedural ever written? The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

  1. Great series James. I am also reading Colin Cotterill’s – The Coroner’s Lunch. Having recently visited Myanmar -I find his books give me a similar feeling to “Burma”.

    1. He’s one I haven’t read yet. I do see Ciotterill at the bookstore quite often. Next time, I’ll pick one up and give it a go. I do love police procedurals.

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