Book review: The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

2 09 2018

Swedish authors (and de facto couple) Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are pivotal figures in the development of Scandinavian crime fiction as a distinct subgenre, with their critically-acclaimed ten-volume series of ‘Martin Beck’ police procedurals mapping out a then-contemporary panorama of Swedish society from the mid sixties to the mid seventies.


The Laughing Policeman (Den skrattande polisen, 1968, translated by Alan Blair), the fourth in the ‘Martin Beck’ sequence, won the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Novel in 1971. Set in Stockholm’s miserable winter slush at the end of 1967, it concerns the mass murder of a busload of passengers, late at night, by an unknown assailant armed with a submachine gun. The police investigation has its hands full merely determining the identities of the driver and eight passengers slain in the attack; the crime scene was left badly messed up by the well-meaning first responders to the incident, so the hopes of Beck and his team for clues to the killer’s identity rest with the critically-wounded sole survivor, and with the discovery that one of the bodies on the bus is that of Åke Stenström, a young policeman known to Beck and his associates. But, since it seems that Stenström was off duty at the time of the attack, it’s not clear whether his presence at the scene was intended or merely due to random chance…

As with all of the books in the sequence, this is presented as a ‘Martin Beck’ novel, though it could more justifiably be described as a novel of Lennart Kollberg, Beck’s closest associate and a distinctly more sympathetic character. Unlike Beck, Kollberg does not merely run the gamut of emotions from ‘gruff’ to ‘taciturn’: his personality displays genuine growth within the book’s pages and his interactions with others, particularly Stenström’s bereaved partner Åsa Torell, are moving and memorable.

The writing is detached, distant, consistently downplaying, the setting a half-century past (with its student unrest and massed Vietnam War demonstrations), yet the scenes described are vivid and the sense of involvement immediate. There are aspects to the text which now appear somewhat dated (its examination of sexuality, for example); it’s also interesting to contrast the police response to the atrocity with what the present-day response would most likely entail. In these respects, it’s unavoidable that the book is seen as a document of its times. (I was intrigued to note that the book contains what might be the earliest pop-culture reference to Ronald Reagan, politician—as opposed to Ronald Reagan, actor—beating out Creedence Clearawater Revival’s ‘It Came Out Of The Sky’ by a year or more.) Also as with all of the Beck books, it’s highly class-conscious and—more through Kollberg’s perspective than that of the consistently sour Beck—does not hide its authors’ openly-declared socialist sympathies, with commentary on wealth inequality, police brutality, corruption, journalistic sensationalism, and the prevalence of gun crime in the USA. (Perhaps this contributes to the books’ air of continuing relevance?) At its heart, however, it remains an expertly-told police procedural, with a well-constructed crime and a realistically-frustrated investigation progressing not-quite-blindly towards the revelation of a concealed truth.


Book review: Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend, by Christoffer Carlsson

19 08 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime novelist whose ‘Leo Junker’ series (soon to add a fourth title) has gained international acclaim for its heavily noirish contemporary tone. I’ve previously reviewed several other novels by Carlsson.


Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend (Mästare, väktare, lögnare, vän, 2015, translated by Michael Gallagher) is the third volume in the Leo Junker series. It opens with the death, from a pistol shot to the head, of the troubled Leo’s mentor and sometime confidante Charles Levin, who had recently retired back to the same Bruket house in which he had lived three-and-a-half decades ago. Leo, who’s well aware that anything involving Charles is highly unlikely to be either accidental or the least bit straightforward, decides he needs to investigate. This decision is complicated by two important considerations: first, the Stockholm police force has placed him on personal leave for reasons of ongoing painkiller abuse, and second, the local Bruket detective with whom he initially liaises on the case (having glossed over the detail of his suspension from active duty) is Tove Waltersson, an officer whom Leo has never previously met. Waltersson, however, knows plenty about Leo, by virtue of the fact that it was Waltersson’s older brother Markus whom Junker mistakenly shot and killed during a disastrous police raid three years previously. But if, for these reasons, the present is distinctly problematic, the past is even more so…

The book cycles erratically through three main time periods: 1970, when as a young police officer Levin meets a woman, Eva, whom he will subsequently marry; 1984, when for a variety of reasons Levin’s personal and professional life undergoes torment; and midsummer 2014, when various debts are called in, including Levin’s death. The viewpoint character for the earlier scenes is most often Charles Levin, while the 2014 sequences are seen through the eyes of alternatively Leo and Tove Waltersson. It’s a giddying, mesmerising, and impressively detailed story that takes its time to assemble itself around a framework of observations and well-placed misdirections (in which context it should be noted that as a SEPO—Swedish secret police—officer, misdirection and deception was Levin’s stock-in-trade, and as a double agent he grew practised in deceiving even those trained to be professionally alert for such techniques). As with Carlsson’s previous excursions into the ill-starred career of Leo Junker, a complicated plot still leaves ample room for tension, high-stakes character interplay (involving deeply flawed, credible, empathetic characters), and the social commentary that typifies Scandinavian crime fiction. The book is a joy to read: Carlsson does this kind of thing incredibly well.

Book review: The Darkest Day, by Håkan Nesser

8 05 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish writer, mostly of crime fiction, best known for his series of ten ‘Van Veeteren’ novels set in the fictional city of Maardam, the nationality of which is never specified though it combines predominantly Dutch nomenclature with a somewhat Scandinavian sensibility. He’s a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, a winner of the Gold Key Award, and is currently on the shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award. I’ve previously reviewed three of his books here, including two of the Van Veeteren series.


The Darkest Day (Människa utan hund, 2006, translated by Sarah Death) is the first of Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarossi’ series, although the Inspector himself does not feature at all until page 185, over a third of the way into the novel. The focus is on a family celebration gone disastrously wrong, as what should be a momentous and happy occasion turns into a slow-rolling train wreck of a reunion. Newly retired patriarch Karl-Erik Hermansson is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday on the same day that his robustly businesslike elder daughter Ebba is turning forty; his outwardly-devoted wife Rosemarie Wunderlich Hermansson, a fellow newly-retired teacher, nurses a secret ambition to kill either herself or her husband over his ambition that they sell up their home of thirty-eight years in the (fictional) Swedish town of Kymlinge to relocate to Spain’s ‘Costa Geriatrica’; only son Robert has disgraced himself, some months previously, through an inebriated act of spectacularly public masturbation during filming of a lowest-common-denominator TV show in which he had been appearing. It’s the kind of setup which, in a lengthy and slow-moving novel, could well turn turgid, and yet Nesser’s characterisation and portrayal is a delight. There’s ample time given, in an introductory sequence that busies itself with the kind of skeweringly precise social observation that somehow the Van Veeteren novels (perhaps due to their deliberately muddled location) have not seemed to accommodate, to get to know the several principal members of the Hermansson clan, and therefore to feel genuinely invested in their welfare when first one and then another of those family members goes inexplicably missing within a 24-hour interval.

The novel is well-imbued with black humour, arising more from the character interaction than from the situations unfolding within the tale, and yet the tension of the last hundred pages or so is almost excruciating, as forces converge towards a chillingly disastrous finale. It is, I have to say, very well done.

Book review: Frozen Moment, by Camilla Ceder

4 04 2018

Camilla Ceder is a Swedish counsellor, social worker, and crime fiction novelist. She has written two crime novels, both available in English translation, featuring Inspector Christian Tell of Göteborg CID as principal protagonist; I’ve previously reviewed the second of those books, Babylon, here.


Frozen Moment (Fruset Ögonblick, 2009, translated by Marlaine Delargy) is Ceder’s first novel, and follows the investigation of Tell and his team into the murder of Lars Waltz, a middle-aged backroads car mechanic of no identifiable notoriety or wealth. Waltz has been fatally shot at point-blank range and has then been gratuitously driven over repeatedly in a four-wheel drive or similar vehicle. There’s no discernible reason why anybody (other than, perhaps, his ex-wife) would want this man dead, and yet someone was sufficiently motivated to not just kill him but to make of his murder scene a gruesome spectacle. The case attracts the attention of journalism student Seja Lundberg, who’s on the scene early when she drives her elderly neighbour Åke (who first found the body) back to the workshop so he can be interviewed by police at the scene. Seja’s ongoing curiosity about the murder has two effects: it makes her a suspect in the crime, and it leads to an awkwardly burgeoning relationship with Tell, who knows he should know better than to get involved with a witness and possibly a perpetrator …

The characterisation in Frozen Moment is a definite selling point for the book. Ceder has a hugely impressive ability to capture the tells, idiosyncracies, foibles, and unspoken insecurities of a broad range of characters, which are expressed with clarity and candour. Alongside a diversity of witnesses and suspects, the components of Tell’s team are all wrought as distinct individuals, their interactions both credibly mundane and revealing. This psychological depth adds urgency and weight to a story which—other than in its brutal means of murder—does not otherwise place undue emphasis on heightened tension (though there is, usefully, a natural escalation as the story progresses to its close). This is a superior example of the Scandinavian crime novel, which satisfies more novelistic characteristics than just word count, and it’s easily good enough to rue the fact that Ceder’s output to date has been only the two books. If what you look for in a crime novel is truly getting inside the heads of the characters, then you owe it to yourself to read this one (and its successor, Babylon).

Book review: The Mind’s Eye, by Håkan Nesser

24 03 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish author whose writing has won the Glass Key Award and three Best Swedish Crime Novel awards. His most well-known work is the ‘Van Veeteren’ series of crime novels, set in an undefined European country with fictionalised (predominantly Dutch-sounding) placenames and a cultured, irascible protagonist whose investigations rely as much on instinct as they do on method. I’ve previously reviewed one of the later Van Veeteren books, Hour of the Wolf, as well as Nesser’s standalone mystery novel A Summer With Kim Novak.


The Mind’s Eye (Det grovmaskiga nätet, 1993, translated by Laurie Thompson) starts with secondary-school teacher Janek Mitter waking from a six-bottles-of-red night. Stumbling through the apartment, he discovers a woman drowned in the bathtub. It’s his wife (and fellow teacher) Eva Ringmar; they were in alone all night. There are signs that Ringmar didn’t kill herself; Mitter can’t remember having killed her, but who else could it be? He’s arrested, he’s charged, he’s found guilty, he’s committed to an asylum. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren harbours some doubt over whether Mitter was in fact responsible for his wife’s death, but there’s no solid evidence, and Mitter’s lack of memory of the night in question means the investigation can proceed no further.

Janek Mitter is a quirky, intriguing character, but readers would be advised not to get too closely attached to him: he doesn’t survive the book’s first section, and as with his wife, his end is plainly at another’s hand. Can Van Veeteren tease out the murderer’s identity, in the almost complete absence of useful clues?

Van Veeteren should be unlikeable: he’s bossy, he’s arrogant, he has no small opinion of himself, and he seems addicted to toothpick-chewing. And yet somehow he emerges as a fundamentally sympathetic character, sufficiently complex to carry much of the novel’s emotional weight (with the remainder falling largely on the shoulders of the suspects and potential witnesses: although some effort is made to individualise Van Veeteren’s colleagues in the investigation, they hardly emerge as separate real characters in this initial novel). The crimes and their underlying motives are well thought out, expertly revealed, and are both resonant and disturbing; the writing is cold and largely without ornamentation. It’s a deeply impressive mystery, and an excellent introduction to Nesser’s skills in this domain.

Book review: The Killer’s Art, by Mari Jungstedt

19 03 2018

Mari Jungstedt is a Swedish journalist and crime fiction author, best known for her series of Gotland-based police procedurals featuring Inspector Anton Knutas (with most titles in the series available in English translation). I’ve previously reviewed the first three books in the series.


(Before the review proper, I should just reassure readers that the book’s title is not spoilerish: there is no character called Art in this volume.)

The Killer’s Art (Den döende dandyn, 2006, translated by Tiina Nunnally) opens with the early-morning discovery of a naked corpse, which has been hanged from a tall medieval gate in the city walls of Visby. It’s quickly established that (a) the deceased is Egon Wallin, well-known (and apparently universally liked) local art dealer and gallery owner, and (b) Wallin didn’t hang himself. So who did? Inspector Knutas and his team commence an investigation in which no motive suggests itself as plausible, though as they dig deeper into Wallin’s personal and professional lives, several secrets and deceptions are revealed …

As always in Jungstedt’s work, the worldbuilding is very good, with the setting of Gotland ably described alongside the blend of genuine and invented art history that backdrops the novel. The characterisation, also, is effective: one of the strengths of the series is its nuanced depiction of the developing professional relationship between Knutas and his longtime colleague Karin Jacobsson, as well as the rather fraught personal relationship between recurring characters Emma Wingarve and TV reporter Johan Berg. (My sole grievance with regard to characterisation is in the portrayal of regular supporting character Inspector Martin Kihlgård, who’s described as being so food-obsessed that he’s eating something in every scene he appears in: while I appreciate that caricaturish ‘tells’ can provide a shorthand for depicting a less-complex character, it nonetheless seems somewhat cheap and unconvincing in an otherwise well-constructed story.) I think, though, that the danger of a series like this—which now, as I understand it, runs to eleven books—is that ultimately it can strain credulity that an island (a large one, admittedly) with a population of slightly less than sixty thousand can play host to such a sequence of complicated and rather outlandish violent crime sprees. While each book is impressive in isolation—Jungstedt’s writing may not quite have the visceral clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson’s, nor the psychological brutality of Karin Alvtegen’s, but she writes well and excels at the depiction of complicated interpersonal relationships—I do find myself wondering if, perhaps, the whole isn’t somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But at this stage there are another seven books to go before I reach that point, so it’s maybe premature to speculate just yet.

Book review: The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

27 02 2018

Though Maj Sjöwall and the late Per Wahlöö both also wrote novels individually, this Swedish duo is best know as the authors of the ten-volume ‘Martin Beck’ series, a set of police procedurals charting crime and societal change across the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. I’ve previously reviewed the first two books in the series, Roseanna and The Man Who Went Up In Smoke.


The Man on the Balcony (Mannen på balkongen, 1967, translated by Alan Blair) details the investigation of a sequence of shocking fatal attacks on preteen girls by an unknown assailant, in public parks across Stockholm. With no reliable witnesses (the only people thought to have seen the attacker are a mugger and a three-year-old boy), and with two fatalities only days apart, the police are under extreme pressure to solve a series of crimes almost completely devoid of useful clues. The taciturn Beck (whom I’ve discovered, three books in, that I visualise as actor Martin Clunes—perhaps it’s a first-name thing) leads an investigation which, by necessity, repeatedly clutches at straws and repeatedly ends up down blind alleys but which, finally, starts to crystallise into a case with one suspect …

The Beck novels have a distinct flavour of ‘time capsule’ about them: they’re very plainly not of the modern world of smartphones, the internet, and magically-powerful forensic analysis. This means they have a particular charm which more recent procedurals, seeking to capture our present day, lack; yet the Beck novels’ setting was the present day of its time, the background issues—mismanaged urbanisation, societal unrest, the uptake in hallucinogenic substances etc—were very much concerns of the time. And insofar as human nature seems to necessitate never properly solving any of its problems, but merely compounding them in unexpected ways, it’s fair to say that the society of these novels (and that society is a reasonably subtle but nonetheless enduring focus of the series) is distinctly recognisable to the modern-day reader, for all that it differs in some details.

The above may make The Man on the Balcony sound dry and sombre, and yet it’s not. It’s low-key, certainly, expressed in clipped, efficient prose that lends the story immediacy. The characterisation is effective but largely undemonstrative; there are no larger-than-life crises designed to throw characters into an emotional or physical maelstrom, merely the plodding routine of the long and poorly-focussed search for the killer, punctuated by fresh clues, fresh red herrings, and fresh attacks. The book doesn’t even aim at catharsis, as if acknowledging that the ultimate result of all of this can never be a resolution, merely an end of sorts. It’s all surprisingly immersive, and quietly intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Sjöwall & Wahlöö, you should.