I just finished reading Firewall and I’ve gotten into a bit of a love-hate relationship with Kurt Wallander. Wallander is the protagonist in a series of police procedural novels written by the Swedish author Henning Mankell.
I’ve written here about the works of some of my other favorite Swedish mystery writers: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (here1, here2, and here3) and Stieg Larsson. Enjoying those led me to seek out other works in the same genre.
I initially borrowed a copy of Sidetracked from my mom, then read it and enjoyed it enough that I picked up a copy of Kennedy’s Brain… which I don’t recommend at all. After disappointment with Kennedy’s Brain, I decided that I just wasn’t all that into Henning Mankell… then a friend recommended I try some more and I’ve been working my way through nearly all of Mankell’s crime fiction.
For what it’s worth I’ve read them in this order (an order which I don’t recommend): Sidetracked, Kennedy’s Brain*, The Dogs of Riga, The White Lioness, The Man From Beijing*, Before the Frost, The Pyramid, Faceless Killers, The Fifth Woman, One Step Behind, and Firewall. I am currently reading The Return of the Dancing Master*. (The books I’ve listed with * are non-Wallander Mankell novels.)
The actual chronological order is shown here. At this point, I’d recommend reading them in that chronological order, except probably best to start from Faceless Killers. Though The Pyramid‘s short stories take place earlier, they were written later to backfill some of the history before Faceless Killers (and Pyramid just isn’t all that great a read – better to tackle once you’ve read others and do care a bit about Kurt Wallander.) While I highly recommend reading Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Beck series in order, I think it’s not quite as critical for Mankell’s Wallander series. Wallander and his daughter do grow older over the course of the series, but the overall character arc from book to book isn’t all that critical; each book stands well on its own.
My friends, who know and put up with me, will understand… I am going to be fairly critical of these books, even though I do like them… and have gone to the effort of tracking them all down. First I am going to comment on the books themselves, then on Wallander and the characters around him.
Mankell, as quality mystery writers do, pulls me through each book… with plenty of tension and suspense. Once I get a couple dozen pages into any of these books, I get hooked and find myself making mental excuses to take time to read to the conclusion.
What I do find a little frustrating is that he sometimes keeps tension high until less than half a dozen pages from the end of the book, then whoooosh! Things resolve and the whole thing winds down precipitously. Especially at the end of Sidetracked and Firewall, I found myself a little disappointed at the quick simple resolution to the complexity that had been swirling only a few pages ago. To me, it feels kind of like Mankell got tired of writing the book and said to himself something like “eh – that’s enough.”
The hasty conclusions sometimes don’t quite tie up all the outstanding plot threads… perhaps that’s deliberate… but for me, it just felt a bit unsatisfying… and when the end isn’t great, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. (At first I thought maybe I had missed/forgotten something… but after feeling this a few times at the end of these books, I think it’s Mankell, not me… and I guess it’s ok, perhaps deliberate, not to have full closure on some things.)
What makes the hasty conclusion all the more noticeable is that Mankell frequently has really good pace drawing one into these books. Many crime novels, including P.D. James‘ work (which I like), start very predictably. Once I had read a couple of James’ books, I knew there would be a dead body within the first ~25 pages. With Mankell, sometimes it’s unclear if there even has been a crime committed – especially in the beginnings of Before the Frost and One Step Behind.
For all the wonderful research and following-up on leads (the hard-work school of solving crimes – something I touched on here, and that’s a great aspect of Swedish crime literature), there are a few too many instances where Wallander’s hunches prove too true. There are too many easy coincidences that help plots hurry along. For example, in Firewall, one character is examining a computer security challenge and states that it has something to do with the number 20. The reader already knows that it revolves around an upcoming date, October 20th… but right after the number 20 is mentioned, Wallander thinks… oh, the 20th is is coming up, maybe the 20 has to do with the date… then he starts almost immediately acting on that assumption… which just felt quite far-fetched to me.
There’s also an excessive neatness to multiple cases coming together. In a Wallander book, you pretty much know that killing “A” that appears unrelated to this disappearance “B” will end up being linked pretty soon. (This happens in the Beck series, definitely in The Locked Room, but sometimes Sjöwall and Wahlöö have good juxtapositions that don’t ever really come together. The one I am thinking of is The Terrorists, where the women exploited by a pornographer are spiritually similar to those exploited by the judicial system… but they’re not directly related.)
Lastly, I feel like Mankell is a bit too quick to get out of Sweden… again mostly in comparison with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I think in 10 books, Martin Beck travels outside Sweden once (in The Man Who Went Up in Smoke) and Gunvald Larsson once (in The Terrorists) and yet the heart of those stories are very much still in Sweden. (It occurs to me that Beck and his squad get to nearby Denmark briefly occasionally, too… and interact with the U.S.A. in Roseanna, too.) It feels like Sjöwall and Wahlöö really want to tell stories that say something about Sweden… whereas Mankell jumps the crux of various stories out to faraway, usually African, locales. This is true for Firewall, The White Lioness, Kennedy’s Brain, The Dogs of Riga and The Man from Beijing. I really enjoy the Swedish locales… which are described lovingly, beautifully… but it feels like Mankell wants to force our focus out of Sweden. In some ways, I think he tends to blame Swedish crime on non-Swedish causes… but maybe I am more frustrated that he just doesn’t find Swedish stuff compelling enough on its own. Some of these faraway places (ie: faraway for Mankell – non-Swedish places) are not described all that compellingly or convincingly… for this I am especially thinking of the introductory chapter of Sidetracked, which takes place in the Dominican Republic.
and then there’s Kurt Wallander!
I can relate to Wallander. He’s middle-aged, overweight, brilliant, but impatient and uneven… He definitely gets the job done, but he’s frequently forgetting to bring something, or forgetting to charge or turn on his phone just when someone needs to reach him. He forgets things that he’s promised to do. He takes a bite and immediately dribbles food onto his shirt, and then recalls he’s missed the laundry shift he’s signed up for. His doctor tells him he needs to lose weight, and he resolves a bunch of healthy things for himself… then still chomps down on junk food when he gets stressed in a case. He longs to be in a relationship, but is pretty much always too busy to dedicate time to pursuing one.
Wallander is a hero, though. He really hustles to do whatever is needed as soon as possible on a case, and the reader catches this passion, this dedication… and it’s fun and very human to see him make his mistakes. He’s doggedly pursuing his leads and hunches – often to the point of exhaustion. In many ways, his flaws are due to his dedication to solving crime… and this dedication makes him heroic.
I found his daughter Linda a bit lacking. She’s mentioned in every book, mostly playing a small role, unless she’s being stalked and/or more-or-less taken hostage (happens twice early on in the series)… but she’s really forgettable. The exception to this is the more recent Before the Frost, where she’s becoming a policewoman and solving a case. I had to laugh when I read an inside-the-front-cover review on Frost which states “[Linda Wallander] makes a memorable first impression” in a review of the, what, ~8th book in which she appears. Proof that she just doesn’t really make a memorable first or second or third impression. She’s worthwhile in Frost, clever, thoughtful, brash… but I remain unimpressed with the father-daughter relationship up to that point.
Wallander’s father is… groan… one of the most irritating characters I’ve encountered in a while. He’s a painter who paints the same landscape over and over, sometimes with a grouse, sometimes without. I’ve wondered why Mankell included him in the series – comic relief? contrast with his son’s (Kurt Wallander’s) eccentricities? There’s some symbolism that I don’t understand and don’t care enough to figure out. I just wasn’t into him. When he dies (in mid-painting, hence the line I quote for the title of this blog article), I felt happy that I wouldn’t need to read about him any more… but then he’s remembered again and again by his son.
I found the detectives around Wallander unremarkable, too. I keep thinking that Martinsson is somehow (from the name Martin) related to Martin Beck… but I am not so sure… he’s nearly personality-less. Other recurring detectives are even less noticeable… They all (young, old, male, female) feel mostly like straight-by-the-book foils for Wallander’s unconventional approach.
I most strongly recommend my favorite two Wallander books: Faceless Killers and The Fifth Woman. Both of these are well-paced and both have satisfying resolutions.
Faceless Killers actually has a couple of excellent ways that it subverts the genre… which challenges our expectations (I can’t explain this much more without spoilers.)
The Fifth Woman is very satisfying too, mostly in some poetic justice at the heart of it… and a bit of a twist on some gender expectations, too.
All the other Wallander books are worth reading. I hope I haven’t, with my critiques, turned off folks from reading these books. Despite a few flaws now and then, they really are a treat to read… and Wallander himself is a great character.
(Many of these were made into PBS movies [and even Swedish movies] which I haven’t seen yet, though I have heard good things about the film versions, too.)