The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö is not the acknowledged classic that Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman is, yet I'd hesitate to call it forgotten. The Martin Beck series certainly has its devoted fans, an international bestseller.
I'd avoided it until now mainly because (1) it is set in 1968 Sweden and (2) because I've seen the movie adaptation which--despite Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, and Cathy Lee Crosby--is not very good. I was only motivated to read the book by reading Jonathan Franzen's introduction to the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition, which I found collected in his book of essays, Farther Away.
Perhaps there are a number of others who have avoided this novel for the same reasons. If so, you should add this one to your Christmas list. It is still a very intelligent mystery, a timepiece yet one that rings true today. The omniscient narrator is Catch-22 ironic and, while leaning to the political left, cracks wise at both sides of the political spectrum.
The movie does some awful things to the original story. It changes the locale from November/December in Sweden to summer in San Francisco, pushes the Vietnam War issue aside, and picks up alternate agendas. What's worse is, it makes a composite character out of several characters and has gay-bashing Bruce Dern play them all at the same time in his most obnoxious guise.
And what's even worse than that, the script has Matthau play against type, and he slaps Cathy Lee Crosby around just to get a bit of personal information out of her. It makes no sense at all. That doesn't happen in the book. Was the director trying to out-dirty Dirty Harry?
|Crosby and Matthau: Against Type|
Well, that's a mystery as well. The director was Stuart Rosenberg, who previously directed Paul Newman in the marvelously authentic Cool Hand Luke. You would expect a better treatment of humanity in a movie made from this fine novel.
And a fine novel it is. Here's an excerpt (not among those quoted by Franzen):
"The consumer society and its harassed citizens had other things to think of. Although it was a month to Christmas, the advertising orgy had begun and the buying hysteria spread as swiftly and ruthlessly as the Black Death along the festooned shopping streets. The epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into homes and apartments, poisoning and braking down everything and everyone in its path.'
"Children were already howling from exhaustion and fathers of families were plunged into debt until their next vacation. The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere. The hospitals had a boom in cardiac infractions, nervous breakdowns, and burst stomach ulcers.'
"The police stations downtown had frequent visits from the outriders of the great family festival, in the shape of Santa Clauses who were dragged blind drunk out of doorways and public urinals. . .two exhausted patrolmen dropped a drunken Father Christmas in the gutter when they tried to get him into a taxi."
I'm a seasonal reader and had I been alerted to that passage, I might have saved this one for December. You might want to do the same. Sweden in the sixties was surprisingly not so different from the United States.