The Short Version: On a cold winter morning, an elderly farmer discovers that his neighbors have been brutally murdered. The investigation quickly turns to an ethnic question when the wife’s last word is “foreign”. Inspector Kurt Wallander, dealing with personal struggles (divorce, a distant daughter, an increasingly senile father), takes charge of the case and quickly finds several of his leads are dead-ends. After other racial tensions start to build in the country, Wallander feels increased pressure to solve the case – as well as the several other cases that pop up potentially in connection – but the murderers remain illusive until one lucky break…
The Review: So Henning Mankell is hailed as the greatest Nordic mystery writer. Says so write on the cover. Well, it says that he’s Sweden’s greatest living mystery writer – but that’s likely when you take into account that Sweden + mystery usually makes people think of Stieg Larsson. And we all know that, despite the magnetic quality of those novels, Larsson wasn’t actually that great of a writer. So I simultaneously went in with only moderate expectations and a healthy intrigue for this novelist whose creation had become a mid-career triumph for Kenneth Branagh on the BBC.
Perhaps it was wrong of me to read the book immediately after reading the best (so far) Harry Hole novel. Cops like Harry Hole aren’t the rule, of course – he’s Dangerous and Out of Control and “Turn in your gun and your badge!” and, hey, that’s the way Nesbø writes and I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve never been a fan of the police procedural where the cop in question isn’t somehow extraordinary. And Wallander, I have to say, isn’t all that extraordinary. This novel takes place over the better part of a year and most of it is just busy work. It’s cops looking at papers and questioning people and being frustrated and going home to deal with their real world frustrations, too. It’s a far bleaker Sweden we see here than the Sweden of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – perhaps because Larsson’s Sweden is bleak with stark lines, cut sharply. This is the bleakness of a world that is all too realistic to be entertaining. As I’ve said many times before, I want to have some sort of transportation when I read a novel – that’s, after all, why we read. To escape, in one way or another.
And, to give Mankell some credit, he is quite good at creating the world of Sweden in 1990. He’s also not afraid to pull out the stops when action is called for. There’s a terrific car chase in this novel that ends rather gruesomely – but feels a little out-of-place. Even the police chief’s reprimand of Wallander feels like it stuck in to appeal to a broader spectrum of mystery readers. And I have to say, I enjoyed it (and Wallander’s late-night stakeout that leads to said chase) more than most of the rest of the novel. So I guess that says something about my tastes as a reader, doesn’t it?
But Mankell also made me feel Sweden in January. The constant wind – no snow, just the wind – was enough for me to mentally cool off a bit (as the thermometer on the back of the house reads 101°F in the shade). And I got a genuine sense of the socio-political struggles that have always lurked under the surface of the other novels. The Larsson books – and Nesbø’s as well – often have some mention of the racial struggles in Sweden and Norway but all of that felt secondary to the plots at the fore. Neo-Nazis are all over the place, but they’re Neo-Nazis as a character choice and not in that they’re regularly killing foreigners. Here, we get a pretty intense look at the way that even ordinary average Swedes (I’m thinking of the maitre d’ at the restaurant where Wallander meets his estranged wife) feel a distaste for immigrants, especially those of color. It’s a startling thing and apparently something that Mankell goes on to deal with at length in the other novels… but it isn’t what I was expecting. I did not expect political treatises – although that’s being a bit harsh, I suppose. The monotony, the drudgery of the whole thing… it felt, well, boring. It’s not boring, of course. I actually think that these are interesting and important topics to deal with in our modern age – but I’ll be damned if I want to deal with them in the context of a seemingly unsolvable murder that drags on for 9 months.
Mostly, even though I burned through the book in a day, I found myself a bit detached. The most interesting thing about Wallander is his love for opera, but I think that’s only because I have a burgeoning love for opera and so I had the opportunity to put on a much-neglected recording of Faust while I read. I found myself not really caring about his familial struggles, about his idiocy in driving drunk or attempting to pick up the married prosecutor. I just found it all about as interesting as any given episode of any given Law & Order series. I can put it in the background but honestly I’d rather read something else. Give me a Psych-type procedural, where there’s a quirk or a gimmick or something out of the ordinary – because the regular crimes are too damn real.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. It feels at times as though Mankell wasn’t sure if Wallander would have a second go-round. The way that things are relatively tied up with his personal life, especially, make this book safely stand-alone. The ending, Wallander falling asleep as he reflects on the “new” Sweden these cases herald, is a bit of a signpost for things to come… but for the most part, I can’t see anyone having been unhappy for Wallander to have simply been a one-off hero. And I think, to be honest, that’s where I leave him. I don’t see myself continuing with the series (stop me if I should – I’m happy to take your recommendations, dear readers) and I’m not all that upset about it. Mankell doesn’t light the fire in my blood the way even Larsson did, let alone Nesbø. The writers of frozen Northern European thrillers are all cut from the same cloth and it’s definitely a fad in literature at the moment… but I see the cloth as apparently having been rather large and I’m happy to stay on this side, letting Mankell keep things a bit more down to earth.