Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Swedish Mastery Writer

I am just thrilled to pieces that the Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson exposed a wide swath of the population to what we murder mystery aficionados knew already:  For some reason, the Swedes do it almost as well as the Brits.  Maybe it's the snowy landscapes; the detectives' heavy drinking (although that seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon); the sun going down early in the evening, or, in the summer, eerily late; the hilarious street names, all ending in -gatan.  A more plausible answer?  The very issues that the Larsson explored in his wildly popular (but, in this reader's opinion, tragically flawed) books: that, in the past few decades, sinister undercurrents have roiled to the surface of Swedish society.  Radical groups, xenophobia, oppression of the fairer sex, and corporate greed form fertile ground for mystery writers to not only weave tales of suspense, but to probe what underlies the shocking violence depicted in each volume.  And no one does this better, my friends, than the man I declare "The Swedish Mastery Writer," Mr. Henning Mankell. 

It's early on in my exploration of Mankell; if we consider only his crime novels, I've not been able to start any which don't feature my new second-favorite (behind Poirot) detective, the disheveled and eerily observant Kurt Wallander.  I began with The Man Who Smiled, the fourth in the series, breaking a very serious rule I have about reading a series from start to finish.  It was a gift, however, and I went on and opened it anyway.

What I found astounded me.  I have always loved Agatha Christie, for her ability to twist and turn and line up plausible suspects and, every time, surprise me in the end.  I cannot put her novels down.  Mankell had all of her talents of suspense and the ability to trick my mind each time I met a new character, but the context, darker and less campy, added a layer of evil and intrigue not present in Dame Agatha's novels of secluded towns or exotic locales.  Inspector Wallander inhabits a sinister world, and a seemingly expansive one.  Darkness and cold winds surround him from all sides.  Mankell takes the reader into this atmosphere with spare and essential details about weather and Wallander's grizzled colleagues, a close look at the mental processes of a seasoned investigator (often Wallander stops and writes down what clues he has, and I find myself scrambling along with him to make sense of what he has found so far), and a literary novelist's critical eye on the wider implications of the story.

"Trudge" is a strange word to use for reading one's way through a favorite series, but I feel less eager and more reluctant to turn the pages of each novel.  So far I have read, in this strange order:  The Man Who Smiled, number four in the series, an unsettling tale of corporate greed and power; The Dogs of Riga, the second installment, which sees Wallander traveling into the unstable world of a former Soviet state; The White Lioness (3), a rare miss and uncomfortable attempt to force a favorite character into the midst of a historical sea change in South Africa; Faceless Killers, the first Wallander novel, a thin but still enjoyable mystery exploring xenophobia in modern Sweden; Before the Frost, an expansive and exciting story of religious extremism - possibly the richest and most suspenseful, along with The Man Who Smiled - which pairs Wallander with his endearingly similar daughter Linda; and The Pyramid, an uneven but worthwhile collection of stories predating Faceless Killers.  Finishing The Pyramid last night prompted this halfway-finished love letter to Mankell.  I have five Wallander novels left, and three standalone crime novels by Mankell, of which I hope he will produce more.  I am in the strange position of wanting so badly to pick up the next one while dreading its surprising and satisfying conclusion. 

How does one tell, in the end, that these genre crime novels aren't just the usual formula and fluff?  What sets this apart from the wildly popular Millennium Trilogy?  Because, as tonight, when I finished the final story of The Pyramid, closed the book, and looked forlornly at my always-forlorn-looking dog, I felt that same sense of satisfaction and emptiness that accompanies putting down a meaty piece of literary fiction.  I felt the same when I finished Tender Is the Night and the sprawling Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I'm never ready to leave Wallander's side; when he takes his boots off his aching feet I long to sit with him and have yet another cup of coffee.  When I finish the series, I can't imagine the sense of loss.  I suppose there are still lots of terrible elements in Sweden emerging to inspire another generation.

3 comments:

Lulu Tate said...

Hey! Reader Erin (another dissatisfied Larsson customer) suggested I post a chronological listing of the Wallander novels. The books are ordered by the sequence of events, but Pyramid, a prequel, was published between Firewall and Before the Frost.

1. The Pyramid
2. Faceless Killers
3. The Dogs of Riga
4. The White Lioness
5. The Man Who Smiled
6. Sidetracked
7. The Fifth Woman
8. One Step Behind
9. Firewall
10. Before the Frost (with Linda Wallander)
11. The Troubled Man (forthcoming)

fatbooks.org said...

you've got me convinced. adding wallander to my (seemingly endless) list of writers to check out.

-- ellen

What Book Today said...

They're quick reads! Stick them in between all those Nobel rereads you've been doing. This is quality-fun-stuff. It's a category. I made it up.

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