A Swede I have to read: Henning Mankell's crime novels are my newest addiction
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 October 2003)

Those of us who follow the exploits of Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander in Henning Mankell's novels can't avoid sharing in his suffering. Life is hard for Kurt, and not all that pleasant for his readers, either. Other detectives have personal problems from time to time, but misery is Wallander's constant companion. Most detectives have moments of insecurity, but every damn case makes Wallander fear he's not up to the job. It's normal for cops in fiction to pity the victims of crime, but Wallander turns pale and slumps into despair when-ever he encounters a body. He's never quite suicidal but he's seldom far from quitting his job. He's so Swedish it hurts.

His cold, distant father, a successful landscape painter, showed nothing but disdain for his son's decision to join the police, leaving Kurt with a lot to prove. He now suffers from an overdeveloped work ethic and a sense of responsibility that's out of control. Whatever goes wrong, he suspects it's his fault. To put it another way, he may not believe in God but he's for sure a Calvinist.

Kurt's wife left him because he often worked all night as well as all day. Partly for the same reason, his relations with his grown-up daughter, Linda, remain tense. Since the divorce he's had one serious lover, but she wouldn't leave Latvia to join him in his hometown, Ystad, probably because she sensed she'd never get his attention if there was a murderer on the loose, as there almost always would be.

He has serious flaws, but what can I say? I've read five novels about Kurt, and I love him. I'm just sorry there are only four left. Mankell decided to stop writing them before they began to bore him, but he's now producing a series of three books (one already published in Sweden) about Wallander's daughter, who becomes a cop like her dad. She dominates the stories while Kurt lurks in the background.

W.H. Auden once wrote, "For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction, like tobacco or alcohol." Mark Lawson said recently in the Guardian that readers of detective fiction, when browsing in a bookshop, are not looking for a book: They're looking for a new addiction. Quite true. Wallander, whose name I never heard till last spring, is my current addiction.

For a small-town Swedish cop, he deals with spectacular crimes. In the first book, Faceless Killers, he solves a double murder that's connected to high-level financial transactions. In The White Lioness, unrepentant members of the old South African secret police plan to have a KGB graduate arrange the assassination of Nelson Mandela; the KGB man makes the mistake of choosing Wallander's turf as his base. In Sidetracked, a Swedish teenager, avenging the rape of his sister, adopts North American Indian clothes and scalps several of the men responsible. In One Step Behind, Wallander catches another serial killer, this one with a perverse sense of humour. In Firewall, Wallander must pull together half a dozen apparently unrelated incidents until they reveal a plot (engineered from Africa, again) to destroy civilization by cybernetically undercutting its financial institutions.

Mankell has the strangest damn approach to narrative. He may be the only crime writer on Earth who borrows nothing from the movies; this man does not believe in quick cuts. If a detective in another book decides to interview a witness, we find him hammering on the witness's door in the next paragraph. Not Wallander. We have to get in his car with him while he works out the route, makes a mistake, then has trouble identifying the house. We go with him when he does his laundry, and if his car suddenly dies we, too, get annoyed by the repair job. At police headquarters the coffee machine keeps breaking down. When he goes to the grocery store he forgets his wallet and we hear about it.

Somehow, Mankell brings this mountain of trivia to life. He writes with a kind of plodding hypnotism, and many respond to it. The Wallander books have so far sold about 10 million copies in 15 languages.

After one or two books a reader starts to understand the rules Wallander lives by. Don't rule out anything. Search for connections. Give yourself time to see beneath the surface. Make lists of facts and questions, over and over. Keep thinking everything through. Mankell said recently that he's most interested in Wallander's mental landscape: "I mean, what is Wallander doing? He is going around, thinking, page after page after page. And that is what interests me. The thinking." Mankell keeps running through the plot, so we won't forget it.

He's 55 this year, and a consummate professional who conducts his working life on two continents. Over the last three decades he's lived part of each year in Maputo, Mozambique, where he runs the national theatre and campaigns against AIDS. He wrote his first novel at 21 and around the same time began directing and writing plays. He writes at least one stage play a year, never about crime.

As an author of policiers, he follows the pattern established long ago by Ed McBain's police procedurals. He's also influenced by the novels Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall wrote about a Stockholm detective, Martin Beck, a generation ago. He recently said he considers Conrad's Heart of Darkness a crime novel, and Macbeth the best crime story ever written. Those who are used to the tone of Mankell's books will not be surprised to learn that his father-in-law is Ingmar Bergman.

Ystad, where Mankell owns a farm, is near Malmo in southern Sweden. It has about 10,000 fewer residents than Moose Jaw, but in Mankell's novels it experiences enough major crimes to keep the LAPD hopping. How to explain this unending wave of criminality? As Wallander would say, we don't yet know enough to arrive at a firm conclusion and we must have another meeting at eight tomorrow morning to discuss it. However, my best guess is that big time international villains and crazy Swedes with murderous instincts bring their atrocities to Ystad just for the chance to match wits with Kurt Wallander.

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