Monday, March 10, 2008
Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Mysteries
In my latest foray into crime fiction in translation, I finally made the acquaintance of Inspector Kurt Wallander. My dad has been recommending Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books to me for years, but it was only last week that I began with an audio version of the first instalment in the series, Faceless Killers (first published in Swedish in 1991 and in English translation in 1997). I’m generally not keen on audio books as I tend to drift when I’m listening rather than reading. But I’ve found that a suspenseful mystery can hold my attention and render my commute bearable. Faceless Killers did better than that, keeping me riveted through a variety of weather-related subway delays that stretched my commute to nearly three hours one afternoon. I was so thoroughly hooked that the minute I reached the end, I picked up the second in the series, The Dogs of Riga, this time in book form, and made short work of it as well. And, having listened to the first book, I had the benefit of having the proper pronunciations in my head so that I didn’t stumble over the Swedish names when reading for myself.
So what’s so good about this series? It begins with the central character, Inspector Kurt Wallander. In many respects, he is an embodiment of the conventions of contemporary crime fiction. Wallander is a disaffected, angst-ridden police officer. He drinks too much (mostly whisky), is passionate about music (opera), and his personal life is in shambles (his wife has just left him and he is estranged from his teenage daughter). He frequently winds up battered and bruised from the physical risks that he takes in the course of his investigations. And yet he subverts a myriad of conventions as well. He falls in love at the drop of a hat, but he’s not the least bit suave with women and his feelings are rarely reciprocated. He may drink copious quantities of whisky of an evening, but he’s apt to order a glass of milk with lunch. His stomach knots under stress and he finds himself searching for a toilet at inopportune moments. He worries about his weight. He telephones his elderly father nightly, concerned about his drift into senility. He gets on rather well with his boss. He doesn’t fight doggedly over his turf when he comes into contact with other branches of the police service but rather hopes they might take a difficult and disturbing case off his hands. He makes a lot of mistakes, and many months may pass before he manages to resolve a case. He does his job well and has a strong sense of duty, but he is constantly tempted to quit the police service for an easier life. All of which is to say that though he has many of the requisite characteristics of a crime fiction hero, he remains gloriously human.
Mankell’s Wallander books also appeal to this literary tourist for their vivid evocation of Sweden. After only two books, I already have a strong sense of the landscape and the progress of the seasons in the southern province of Sweden in which the series is set. And I have learned something about Swedish society, politics, and history as well. I recognize, of course, that fiction isn’t the best source of information about such things. But I relish a novel that sparks my interest in a new subject sufficiently to send me off in search of non-fiction about it, and these books have done that for me. Faceless Killers opens with the brutal murder of an elderly Swedish couple. The woman survives for nearly a day but wakes only long enough to speak the word “foreigner” before she dies. After a leak to the media, simmering tensions around Sweden’s immigration policy ignite resulting in further crimes and many complications for Wallander and his team in their quest to solve the case. This scenario offers not just a suspenseful mystery but also a glimpse into an aspect of Swedish society that runs counter to the general perception of the country as a bastion of tolerance. The Dogs of Riga opens with the bodies of two men who have been tortured and executed washing up on the Swedish coast in an unmarked life raft. The victims are traced to the Baltic state of Latvia, then in the midst of violent political turmoil stemming from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The rather apolitical Wallander must travel to Latvia and learn something of its history and politics in order to solve the case. Again I found myself riveted by the plot (formulated by Mankell before the outcome of the Latvian quest for independence was determined), and also moved to learn more about the recent history of the Baltic states than I had gleaned from following the news at the time that the events to which the book alludes were unfolding.
Utterly satisfying books both, and I am very much looking forward to reading my way through the rest of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series.