Fourth in the acclaimed Martin Beck series, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is another example of the controlled brilliance of this superb set of novels. The book (first published in 1967) opens with a description of an anti-Vietnam war demonstration, in which the police casually brutalize a girl demonstrator on her thirteenth birthday. Police resources have almost entirely been deployed to quelling the protesters, allowing free rein to the real criminals. The authors do not need to provide further comment on the ludicrous situation in which young girls are arrested but a blind eye is turned to thieves, muggers and worse.
Police inspectors and series regulars Beck and Kollberg are unmoved by the hysteria over the demonstrations. Their years of experience have taught them how to avoid being drafted in to help, so instead of beating up hippies they are playing chess on a dark, rainy night while Kollberg is babysitting. Later that night, however, ten people on a bus are massacred by a gunman (or woman) in a seemingly motiveless crime. The first police on the scene are the lazy radio patrolmen Kristiansson and Kvent, whom we last met in THE MAN ON THE BALCONY when they inadvertently solved the case. On this occasion, they recognize one of the victims as a homicide-squad detective, and so inform Gunvald Larsson, who in turn contacts Beck, as well as trampling all over the scene and ruining much of the forensic evidence. After a brief period in which Beck worries that the victim might be his friend Kollberg, it turns out that the dead man is the ambitious young detective Ake Stenstrom. As Beck's team works through the list of victims and begins to investigate their lives in the calm, unemotional style that typifies these books, the tragedy of the waste of life and the effect on the surviving relatives and friends is bought sharply home. As the police find out more about the victims and their families, various situations, personal and criminal, come to light. However, the central mystery of why Stenstrom was on the bus, and why he was sitting next to a young, female nurse, becomes no clearer. Eventually, the painstaking work of the detectives begins to pay off, particularly when they realise that Stenstrom was working on a case "off the books". This breakthrough means that they attempt to recreate his investigation and in so doing, gradually uncover the motivation for the crime and the identity of the criminal.
I loved this book. With each book in the series, the detectives in the team are gradually taking on more clearly defined personalities as their (often hilarious) idiosyncrasies become familiar. The reader can begin to predict who Martin Beck will assign to each task, and how each one might contribute to the investigation. As well as this core story, the snapshots of the various witnesses, suspects and other people associated with the case provide a telling view of the wider society, without hype. Yet the story is by no means cold: the authors understand too well the loss of humanity that is experienced as people live year after year in an environment that is stifling them, as reflected by the detectives' attitudes to their superiors and to the "values" they are supposed to uphold, as well as to the microcosms of their personal lives – Martin Beck's in particular being more miserable than most of his colleagues'. In THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, the effect of Stenstrom's death on his girlfriend Asa is particularly well conveyed. A turning point for her comes when Kollberg impulsively takes pity on her despair; by the time the crime is solved, his actions have enabled her to turn the corner and to made a decision which provides some hope for her future.