The Laughing Policeman

by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

The Laughing Policeman

Paperback, 211 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14 | purchase

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Excerpt: The Laughing Policeman

The Laughing Policeman

1On the evening of the thirteenth of November it was pouring in Stockholm. Martin Beck and Kollberg sat over a game of chess in the latter's apartment not far from the subway station of Skarmarbrink in the southern suburbs. Both were off duty insomuch as nothing special had happened during the last few days.Martin Beck was very bad at chess but played all the same. Kollberg had a daughter who was just over two months old. On this particular evening he was forced to baby-sit, and Martin Beck on the other hand had no wish to go home before it was absolutely necessary. The weather was abominable. Driving curtains of rain swept over the rooftops, pattering against the windows, and the streets lay almost deserted; the few people to be seen evidently had urgent reasons to be out on such a night.Outside the American embassy on Strandvagen and along the streets leading to it, 412 policemen were struggling with about twice as many demonstrators. The police were equipped with tear gas bombs, pistols, whips, batons, cars, motorcycles, shortwave radios, battery megaphones, riot dogs and hysterical horses. The demonstrators were armed with a letter and cardboard signs, which grew more and more sodden in the pelting rain. It was difficult to regard them as a homogeneous group, for the crowd comprised every possible kind of person, from thirteen-year-old schoolgirls in jeans and duffel coats and dead-serious political students to agitators and professional troublemakers, and at least one eighty-five-year-old woman artist with a beret and a blue silk umbrella. Some strong common motive had induced them to defy both the rain and whatever else was in store. The police, on the other hand, by no means comprised the force's elite. They had been mustered from every available precinct in town, but every policeman who knew a doctor or was good at dodging had managed to escape this unpleasant assignment. There remained those who knew what they were doing and liked it, and those who were considered cocky and who were far too young and inexperienced to try and get out of it; besides, they hadn't a clue as to what they were doing or why they were doing it. The horses reared up, chewing their bits, and the police fingered their holsters and made charge after charge with their batons. A small girl was bearing a sign with the memorable text: DO YOUR DUTY! KEEP FUCKING AND MAKE MORE POLICE! Three 190-pound patrolmen flung themselves at her, tore the sign to pieces and dragged her into a squad car, where they twisted her arms and pawed her breasts. She had turned thirteen on this very day and had not yet developed any.Altogether more than fifty persons were seized. Many were bleeding. Some were celebrities, who were not above writing to the papers or complaining on the radio and television. At the sight of them, the sergeants on duty at the local police stations had a fit of the shivers and showed them the door with apologetic smiles and stiff bows. Others were less well treated during the inevitable questioning. A mounted policeman had been hit on the head by an empty bottle and someone must have thrown it.The operation was in the charge of a high-ranking police officer trained at a military school. He was considered an expert on keeping order and he regarded with satisfaction the utter chaos he had managed to achieve.In the apartment at Skarmarbrink, Kollberg gathered up the chessmen, jumbled them into the wooden box and shut the sliding lid with a smack. His wife had come home from her evening course and gone straight to bed."You'll never learn this," Kollberg said plaintively."They say you need a special gift for it," Martin Beck replied gloomily. "Chess sense I think it's called."Kollberg changed the subject."I bet there's a helluva to-do at Strandvagen this evening," he said."I expect so. What's it all about?""They were going to hand a letter over to the ambassador," Kollberg said. "A letter. Why don't they send it by mail?""It wouldn't cause so much fuss.""No, but all the same, it's so stupid it makes you ashamed.""Yes," Martin Beck agreed.He had put on his hat and coat and was about to go. Kollberg got up quickly."I'll come with you," he said."Whatever for?""Oh, to stroll around a little.""In this weather?""I like rain," Kollberg said, climbing into his dark-blue poplin coat."Isn't it enough for me to have a cold?" Martin Beck said. Martin Beck and Kollberg were policemen. They belonged to the homicide squad. For the moment they had nothing special to do and could, with relatively clear consciences, consider themselves free.Downtown no policemen were to be seen in the streets. The old lady outside the central station waited in vain for a patrolman to come up to her, salute, and smilingly help her across the street. A person who had just smashed the glass of a showcase with a brick had no need to worry that the rising and falling wail from a patrol car would suddenly interrupt his doings.The police were busy.A week earlier the police commissioner had said in a public statement that many of the regular duties of the police would have to be neglected because they were obliged to protect the American ambassador against letters and other things from people who disliked Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.Detective Inspector Lennart Kollberg didn't like Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam either, but he did like strolling about the city when it was raining.At eleven o'clock in the evening it was still raining and the demonstration could be regarded as broken up.At the same time eight murders and one attempted murder were committed in Stockholm.2Rain, he thought, looking out of the window dejectedly. November darkness and rain, cold and pelting. A forerunner of the approaching winter. Soon it would start to snow.Nothing in town was very attractive just now, especially not this street with its bare trees and large, shabby apartment houses. A bleak esplanade, misdirected and wrongly planned from the outset. It led nowhere in particular and never had, it was just there, a dreary reminder of some grandiose city plan, begun long ago but never finished. There were no lighted shop windows and no people on the sidewalks. Only big, leafless trees and street lamps, whose cold white light was reflected by puddles and wet car roofs.He had trudged about so long in the rain that his hair and the legs of his pants were sopping wet, and now he felt the moisture along his shins and right down his neck to the shoulder blades, cold and trickling.He undid the two top buttons of his raincoat, stuck his right hand inside his jacket and fingered the butt of the pistol. It, too, felt cold and clammy.At the touch, an involuntary shudder passed through the man in the dark-blue poplin raincoat and he tried to think of something else. For instance of the hotel balcony at Andraitz, where he had spent his vacation five months earlier. Of the heavy, motionless heat and of the bright sunshine over the quayside and the fishing boats and of the limitless, deep-blue sky above the mountain ridge on the other side of the bay.Then he thought that it was probably raining there too at this time of year and that there was no central heating in the houses, only open fireplaces.And that he was no longer in the same street as before and would soon be forced out into the rain again.He heard someone behind him on the stairs and knew that it was the person who had got on outside Ahlens department store on Klarabergsgatan in the center of the city twelve stops before.Rain, he thought. I don't like it. In fact I hate it. I wonder when I'll be promoted. What am I doing here anyway and why aren't I at home in bed with . . .And that was the last he thought.The bus was a red doubledecker with cream-colored top and gray roof. It was of the type Leyland Atlantean and built in England, but constructed for the Swedish right-hand traffic, introduced two months before. On this particular evening it was plying on route 47 in Stockholm, between Bellmansro at Djurgarden and Karlberg, and vice versa. Now it was heading northwest and approaching the terminus on Norra Stationsgatan, situated only a few yards from the city limits between Stockholm and Solna.Solna is a suburb of Stockholm and functions as an independent municipal administrative unit, even if the boundary between the two cities can only be seen as a dotted line on the map.It was big, this red bus; over 36 feet long and nearly 15 feet high. It weighed more than 15 tons. The headlights were on and it looked warm and cozy with its misty windows, as it droned along deserted Karlbergsvagen between the lines of leafless trees. Then it turned right into Norrbackagatan and the sound of the engine was fainter on the long slope down to Norra Stationsgatan. The rain beat against the roof and windows, and the wheels flung up hissing cascades of water as it glided downward, heavily and implacably.The hill ended where the street did. The bus was to turn at an angle of 30 degrees, onto Norra Stationsgatan, and then it had only some 300 yards left to the end of the line.The only person to observe the vehicle at this moment was a man who stood flattened against a house wall over 150 yards farther up Norrbackagatan. He was a burglar who was about to smash a window. He noticed the bus because he wanted it out of the way and had waited for it to pass.He saw it slow down at the corner and begin to turn left with its side lights blinking. Then it was out of sight. The rain pelted down harder than ever. The man raised his hand and smashed the pane.What he did not see was that the turn was never completed.The red doubledecker bus seemed to stop for a moment in the middle of the turn. Then it drove straight across the street, climbed the sidewalk and burrowed halfway through the wire fence separating Norra Stationsgatan from the desolate freight yard on the other side.Then it pulled up.The engine died but the headlights were still on, and so was the lighting inside.The misty windows went on gleaming cozily in the dark and cold.And the rain lashed against the metal roof.The time was three minutes past eleven on the evening of the thirteenth of November, 1967.In Stockholm.3Kristiansson and Kvant were radio patrol policemen in Solna.During their not-very-eventful careers they had picked up thousands of drunks and dozens of thieves, and once they had presumably saved the life of a six-year-old girl by seizing a notorious sex maniac who was just about to assault and murder her. This had happened less than five months ago, and although it was a fluke it constituted a feat which they intended to live on for a long time.On this particular evening they had not picked up anything at all, apart from a glass of beer each; as this was perhaps against the rules, it had better be ignored.Just before ten thirty they got a call on the radio and drove to an address at Kapellgatan in the suburb of Huvudsta, where someone had found a lifeless figure lying on the front steps. It took them only three minutes to drive there.Sure enough, sprawling in front of the street door lay a human being in frayed black pants, down-at-heel shoes and a shabby pepper-and-salt overcoat. In the lighted hallway inside stood an elderly woman in slippers and dressing gown. She was evidently the one who had complained. She gesticulated at them through the glass door, then opened it a few inches, stuck her arm through the crack and pointed demandingly to the motionless form."A-ha, and what's all this?" Kristiansson said.Kvant bent down and sniffed."Out cold," he said with deeply-felt distaste. "Give us a hand, Kalle.""Wait a second," Kristiansson said."Eh?""Do you know this man, madam?" Kristiansson asked more or less politely."I should say I do""Where does he live?"The woman pointed to a door three yards farther inside the hall."There," she said. "He fell asleep while he was trying to unlock the door.""Oh yes, he has the keys in his hand," Kristiansson said, scratching his head. "Does he live alone?""Who could live with an old bastard like that?" the lady said. "What are you going to do?" Kvant asked suspiciously. Kristiansson didn't answer. Bending down, he took the keys from the sleeper's hand. Then he jerked the drunk to his feet with a grip that denoted many years' practice, pushed open the front door with his knee and dragged the man toward the apartment. The woman stood on one side and Kvant remained on the outer steps. Both watched the scene with passive disapproval.Kristiansson unlocked the door, switched on the light in the room and pulled off the man's wet overcoat. The drunk lurched, collapsed on to the bed and said, "Thanksh, Miss."Then he turned over on his side and fell asleep. Kristiansson laid the keys on a kitchen chair beside the bed, put out the light, shut the door and went back to the car."Good night, madam," he said.The woman stared at him with pursed lips, tossed her head and disappeared.Kristiansson did not act like this from love of his fellow humans, but because he was lazy.None knew this better than Kvant. While they were still serving as ordinary patrolmen on the beat in Malmo, he had many a time seen Kristiansson lead drunks along the street and even across bridges in order to get them into the next precinct.Kvant sat at the wheel. He switched on the ignition and said sourly, "Siv oftentimes says I'm lazy. She should see you."Siv was Kvant's wife and also his dearest and often sole subject of conversation."Why should I get puked on for nothing?" Kristiansson said philosophically.Kristiansson and Kvant were similar in build and appearance. Both were 6 feet 1 inch tall, fair, broad-shouldered and blue-eyed. But they had widely different temperaments and didn't always see eye to eye. This was one of the questions upon which they were not agreed.Kvant was incorruptible. He never compromised over things he saw, but on the other hand he was an expert at seeing as little as possible.He drove slowly, in glum silence, following a twisting route from Huvudsta that led past the Police Training College, then through an area of communal garden plots, past the railroad museum, the National Bacteriological Laboratory, the School for the Blind, and then zigzag through the extensive university district with its various institutions, finally emerging via the railroad administration buildings on to Tomtebodavagen.

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