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For a while this was the best known of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck police procedurals internationally thanks to a not very effective US film adaptation that relocated the plot to San Francisco, changed the ending considerably to give it a bigger finish and cast Walter Matthau as the renamed hero that kept the dour and low-key tone but never made it really work. Thankfully the fourth of BBC Radio's dramatisations of the original novels is a much more successful and engrossing affair as the melancholy detective hunts Sweden's first mass murderer after a nine passengers on a bus - including one of Beck's detectives - are killed and a set of pornographic photos and an almost unintelligible description from a survivor are the only clues. Is it connected to a case the detective was working on in his free time or was he just collateral damage in another vendetta - or is the killer mad and likely to repeat the act?

The two cases that may or may not be related are intriguing even condensed into a one hour running time which, as usual, never feels rushed - it finds time both for the cracks in Beck's marriage to emerge and to deal with the grief and anger of the loved ones left behind - but at the same time leaves you wondering if a full series-length adaptation could have been even better. It's still one of the best of a surprisingly addictive series.
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This is one of a series of thrillers by the Swedish writing duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that feature the detective Martin Beck. It starts with an attack on the driver and passengers of a double decker bus by a man with a sub machine gun. Eight are left dead and one other is critically wounded. Obvious questions are: is there a link between any of the victims, did the wounded victim recognise the gunman, were there any witnesses etc.? One of the dead is Åke Stenström, a young detective colleague of Beck, who was found to have a gun in his hand. So others question are: why was he on the bus and why was he carrying a gun when off duty? Initially, the team gets nowhere, but after a few weeks a link is established with a very old unsolved sex murder of a Portuguese woman. This is the breakthrough they need, because it establishes that the slaughter was not a random act, but the murderer had targeted at least some of the victims. There follows more detailed detective work, which slightly loses its way in complexity, during which they eventually discover what it was that Stenström was working on. This provides the evidence that points to the murderer. He is apprehended in a tense scene at the close of the book, but on the last page there is a final twist that shows that Beck is not perfect.

Interwoven with details of the professional work of the detectives, there is much about their personal lives and those of their families. Beck, as usual for the main police character, is not a happy man. He has long since grown apart from his wife and only seems to have a near normal relationship with his daughter. His work is his life. This is very different to that of his closest friend, Lennart Kollberg, who has a very good and sensual relationship with his partner. The other detectives are a varied bunch, but the dialogues between them, often in a laconic style, and the interactions they have with the people they interview, seem realistic.

This book won much praise when it was first published in 1968 and deservedly so. It is a model of the police procedural, where a team of detectives painstakingly finds clues, sift evidence, and go down many false trails, until they finally home in on the perpetrator. But it is also a novel about status and power and the interactions of people from different classes of Swedish society. Incidentally, there are several instances where the authors insert dialogue and actions that make clear their life-long Marxist beliefs, but this is not done in an intrusive way.
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VINE VOICEon 20 December 2011
This is the fourth in the authors' Martin Beck series. By the time they came to write it, they had it down to a fine art. The plot is very well constructed and the book continually absorbing.

A gunman shoots all the passengers on a bus with a sub-machine gun killing eight people, one of whom is a fellow detective, Åke Stenström. Martin Beck and his team have remarkably little to go on, since it is not at all obvious what Stenström was doing on the bus in the first place. Though it soon becomes clear that he was investigating something, he has confided in no one, not even his girlfriend, so a major task is to figure out what he was up to and whether or not it involved another passenger.

The investigation is so labour-intensive that help is called in from elsewhere, and in due course a link is suspected to the murder of a Portuguese prostitute which had occurred sixteen years before.

In the first book of the series, Martin Beck is plainly the most important character. By the time of this book, the authors have developed a team of which Beck is but one. For example, in this novel Kollberg is as important as Beck. Other detectives from previous books also figure, including the pipe-smoking Melander, who acts as a human memory bank for the other officers.

The conclusion is wonderful, though I can't say why without spoiling it for the reader. The motivation of the killer is unusually clear and the explanation he gives of his actions is only made possible by a piece of forward thinking by Beck.

Criticism of Swedish society occurs from time to time, brought into focus not only by the motivation of the killer but also by the out-of-town policemen brought in to help. Both are less than impressed by Stockholm and keen to return to their own less metropolitan areas of Sweden.

Given when it was written, there are no computers or mobile phones, all the officers are male and quite a lot of smoking goes on. But this book is entirely convincing and doesn't feel even slightly dated.
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VINE VOICEon 27 February 2012
This is the fourth in the authors' Martin Beck series. By the time they came to write it, they had it down to a fine art. The plot is very well constructed and the book continually absorbing.

A gunman shoots all the passengers on a bus with a sub-machine gun killing eight people, one of whom is a fellow detective, Åke Stenström. Martin Beck and his team have remarkably little to go on, since it is not at all obvious what Stenström was doing on the bus in the first place. Though it soon becomes clear that he was investigating something, he has confided in no one, not even his girlfriend, so a major task is to figure out what he was up to and whether or not it involved another passenger.

The investigation is so labour-intensive that help is called in from elsewhere, and in due course a link is suspected to the murder of a Portuguese prostitute which had occurred sixteen years before.

In the first book of the series, Martin Beck is plainly the most important character. By the time of this book, the authors have developed a team of which Beck is but one. For example, in this novel Kollberg is as important as Beck. Other detectives from previous books also figure, including the pipe-smoking Melander, who acts as a human memory bank for the other officers.

The conclusion is wonderful, though I can't say why without spoiling it for the reader. The motivation of the killer is unusually clear and the explanation he gives of his actions is only made possible by a piece of forward thinking by Beck.

Criticism of Swedish society occurs from time to time, brought into focus not only by the motivation of the killer but also by the out-of-town policemen brought in to help. Both are less than impressed by Stockholm and keen to return to their own less metropolitan areas of Sweden.

Given when it was written, there are no computers or mobile phones, all the officers are male and quite a lot of smoking goes on. But this book is entirely convincing and doesn't feel even slightly dated.
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on 24 July 2009
The story begins with the unexplained mass murder, apparently by machine gun, of eight people on one of Stockholm's double-decker buses. The dead include the bus driver, an off-duty policeman, a nurse, a foreman, an import-export businessman, a restaurant worker, a widow, and one body with no identification. A ninth victim, a 43-year old highway department worker, is unconscious with life-threatening wounds, but may regain consciousness. When the more experienced detectives arrive, the scene has already been disturbed, there is no clear motive for the killings, no witnesses, and no obvious clues. To add to the pathos, the lead detective Martin Beck knew the young policeman who was killed.

This police procedural traces the painstaking follow-through, organization, and detailed attention required to solve this mass murder. Along-the-way it provides cameos of married life and insights into Swedish society in the decade of the 1960s. The characters are part of a series of books by the authors, and for those who have read other titles in the series they may be old friends, although to new readers this cast may appear a bit large. The book's title has only a minimal connection to the mystery.

More than half the book is devoted to laying out the story and key characters, with the latter part devoted to the solution. As befits a police procedural, the solution is due more to steady investigation than to an "aha" moment. The story is well-written and interesting, I found myself reading at least two or three more chapters than planned at each sitting. However, due to the relatively large cast of characters and locations it takes a bit more concentration than the usual mystery.

This Swedish novel is quite reflective of its authors' time and location. There are allusions to now historical events such the Vietnam war, past American mass murders, and references to Scandinavian products such as Rya rugs and Akvavit (Aquavit). The translation is generally quite good, with only an occasional sentence fragment in place of a sentence. Swedish street names remain untranslated or simplified, e.g., Norrbackagatan, Karlbergsvägen, and Norra Stationgatan (rather than e.g., Northback Street, Carl Mountain Road, North Station Street). These names make it a bit more difficult for the non-Scandinavian reader to keep location references easily in mind.

In summary: The story is entertaining, the progress to solution interesting, and the solution satisfactory. The journalist authors appear to capture, through their characters, the attitudes current in Sweden during the decade of the 1960s when the novel was written. Despite some minor cavils, this is a novel I would not hesitate to recommend.
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on 21 May 2013
The Laughing Policeman (The Martin Beck series, Book 4)
I read all the revues and was looking forward to finding another writer to follow all the enjoyment I have had with the "scandi crime" genre. Not to be however, I read 4 to make sure it wasn't me, and I am sure now it isn't. They are short, almost read in a sitting, do not really grip and the endings are trite. Very trite in 2 cases, almost Star Trek like in being able to magic up a solution, or an ending out of nothing.
If you need to know I have read 1/2/3 and 4. No more.
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on 2 August 2012
Late one night in Stockholm, a double-decker bus crashes hard against a fence. The engine stalls, its lights stay on. A man walking his dog looks inside and minutes later stops a police car. In the next 10+ minutes the patrol cops trample all over the evidence in their search for survivors.
The bus is a bloodbath with 8 deaths and one badly wounded, hanging on to life. Martin Beck(MB)'s team identifies all victims but one, whose face is shot away and carries no papers. But one of the dead is a close colleague, young Ake Stenström (AS), trained by MB and often criticized by Kollberg. The massacre prompts the biggest manhunt in Swedish police history. With poor results.
The sole survivor uttered a few words before he died. They were recorded and tested in various ways to extract their meaning. But the main question for MB's team is: why was AS in that bus? And who is the man without a face? This is a great police procedural, where the tiniest of clues may be decisive. Great ambition, the science of psychology and the art/science of profiling are key inputs of this mysterious massacre.
Sjöwall & Wahlöö's ten novels can be read as stand-alone books. Serious fans reread the series, which sold millions of books worldwide, from start to finish, chronologically to see how the series and its protagonists, and Sweden and its law enforcement agencies, evolve. Great book.
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on 4 May 2011
I read all the books in the series years ago when I was young and Swedish crime fiction was unheard of - the only crime I'd read before this was by Dorothy L Sayers, the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Nothing could have been more different than disillusioned Martin Beck, unhappy in marriage and with disturbed digestion, probably suggesting Wallander to Henning Mankell, even if only subconsciously. I could not get enough of them, they are classic crime at its best. This particular book of the series is probably my favourite.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 January 2015
In spite of my conviction that Sjowell and Wahloo can do no wrong, I was slightly underwhelmed at this, my latest foray into their writing careers. It begins with a Protest meeting against the war in Vietnam during which a group of degenerate coppers first trample, then arrest a 12 year-old girl and treat her abominably. Nevertheless, I swallowed my distaste and was thankful to turn to chapter 2. There is something here that suggests the violent nature of Swedish society during the 1960s, though I daresay such incidents can be matched with ones such as the Blair Peach affair in London.

In any case we are soon embroiled in a quite different incident on a bus, where late in the evening of the following day someone has shot and killed all but one of the passengers. It takes some time for the police led by the ever enigmatic Martin Beck, and his friends, all admirably characterised, to realise that the primary victim was one person, the others all had to die in order to cover up the real victim. The one person accidently left alive is able only to answer a couple of questions and these don't really, at first, make much sense.

The rest of this book is concerned with unravelling the extremely difficult matter of who has perpetrated this horrific act. It is, in places, a little slower than one would want it to be, though the policier action is unrelenting.
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VINE VOICEon 6 January 2003
I have read a few scandinavian detective stories recently which have been translated into english and have enjoyed them all. This is an old novel, originally printed 1968 and translated 1970, but the story suffers not an iota from this.
One night, the eight occupants of a bus are murdered. Among the dead is a colleague of Martin Beck, a police homicide detective. There seem to be no clues or motives for ages, until good detective work reveals that this crime is connected to one committed many years ago.
The translation is odd in places with unusual phrasing but it is an engrossing and old-fashioned detective story which is well worth a read.
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