by Henning Mankell
304 pages, Vintage
Review by Pat Black
The first Wallander story, Faceless Killers, appeared in 1991, but its themes might have dated from the past fortnight.
The Swedish inspector’s first published case is a murder at a remote farmhouse, which sees an elderly man and his wife battered and garrotted by one or more intruders.
The only clue is revealed in the chilling opening chapter after a kindly neighbour realises the couple haven’t followed their usual routine, and arrives just in time to hear the dying wife’s last word:
Heading the police inquiry is Kurt Wallander. Try not to roll your eyes, now (or eye, if you only have one): he’s in crisis, his wife having left him, and his daughter – who survived a suicide attempt - doesn’t speak to him. He drinks, and sometimes gets in his car afterwards. He is perhaps not best suited to such a high-pressure, responsible job.
Hmm. Any character tics or foibles? Yep, of the Morse-y variety: he listens to opera on cassette tapes.
I’ve noticed Scandie Noir detectives are bang into their pastries and coffee, and Wallander is no exception. At time of writing, this doesn’t half put me in the mood for pastries and coffee. I imagine the writers, tucking into pastries and coffee as they type – about pastries and coffee - chuckling as they imagine their readers also tucking into pastries and coffee, or wishing they could. It is a curious metaphysical symbiosis, akin to someone reading Bukowski poetry about getting blootered in a pub, composed when he was blootered in a pub, while they themselves are getting blootered in a pub.
Wallander is horrified by the crime. It’s seemingly without motive, and there are no witnesses. But matters take an even more sinister turn when the dying wife’s last words are leaked to the public.
In the context of the story, Sweden has been taking in refugees in great numbers, and this has already caused tensions among the established population. So the idea of “foreigners” coming to Sweden and slaughtering an old couple ignites nasty, white supremacist tendencies.
Wallander is warned in a series of anonymous phone calls that “something will be done soon unless you catch them”. Something is done – first, a cardboard village is torched, and then a black refugee is executed at random, in cold blood, his head blown off with a shotgun.
So our hero has two major inquiries to sort out – the double killing at the farmhouse, and then the asylum seeker’s shooting – and all while his boss is on holiday.
The late Henning Mankell wrote this book as a response to similar tensions affecting Sweden in 1990. Their parallels with the present day are all too clear.
Mankell was aghast at the racism which emerged in Sweden in response to the influx of refugees. At the same time, he advocated controlled immigration, rather than doors flung open to just anyone. On the face of it, that’s a common sense approach - except I’m not sure that the latter scenario marks the actual truth. “They’re just letting anyone in” sounds a bit like a myth spewed out at the pub by a boozed-up farmer who doesn’t live within five miles of anyone non-white – and he’ll tell you he still thinks Brexit is a good idea, while he’s at it.
Whatever the case, this is a view that Wallander shares, and makes explicit in the book.
His investigation, much like any real-life inquiry, is a methodical, logical process; speaking to witnesses, finding discrepancies in stories and tracking down Persons of Interest. Wallander is led down a few blind alleys, but by and large he follows reasoned steps to find his killers. He even gets a couple of action scenes - one while on stakeout, another as he chases down some bad guys.
I liked the procedural element. There are few if any credibility-stretching leaps of logic disguised as insight, and a wilful rejection of the guess-the-killer card game of most whodunnits. With detective stories, there’s a constant tension between a realistic depiction of police work and the need to create an engaging puzzle. Wallander is more on the side of the nitty-gritty than many of his contemporaries.
Wallander also tries to seduce his district’s new chief prosecutor. She’s a young, ambitious woman who rattles his cage with her attitude – read “competence” – before haunting his daydreams. He is punching well above his weight, here. It comes across as some last-beer-in-the-crate fantasy of a middle-aged, bang-out-of-shape man; the delusion that the good looking woman in the office wants his body.
It seems doubtful that anyone would want Wallander’s body - he is a mess, dishevelled, hung over most of the time, just about clinging to the cliff-face of life. Why a married, accomplished woman would want to get mixed up with someone who screams “loser” at you from a long way off is anyone’s guess, but we probably all know cases where this has happened.
This encounter was problematic as Wallander initially forces himself on her. He does, thankfully, take no for an answer, but even at a gap of nigh-on 30 years, I think he’d end up in trouble in real life for this. Eventually, though, he succeeds.
Maybe I’m a little bit too uptight on this score. Perhaps it’s all down to that mythologised Scandinavian openness over matters of the flesh. I once asked a Swedish person I studied with if this tabloid aspect of his national character had any basis in truth, and he assured me it did. Well, you would say that. There are some national stereotypes that people enjoy living up to. Like if you had a national trait that championed hard drinking or proficiency at violence; some folk would rather this assumption was made about them on first impressions than not.
Whatever the case, I thought Wallander was a wee bit out of line.
There are some fascinating side-characters, including a hard-working lieutenant who does a lot of the spade work for Wallander. This was true to life, as real murder investigations can use dozens of officers making hundreds of inquiries, and not just one maverick gumshoe on his own, eating pastries and drinking coffee, on a hangover.
I was intrigued by Wallander’s father, who lives on his own and suffers from dementia. I felt sure there was Meaning to be found in the old man. He’s an artist, famous for painting the same scene and figures, over and over again. The old boy, who lives alone, has taken to downing his paintbrushes and wandering off into the background, in one case vanishing for a day before the authorities pick him up.
Wallander is worried sick for his dad, and knows the time will come when a hard decision must be taken.
Should we read something into this? Should we see a more romantic notion of Swedish life and society grown corrupt, become sad and dysfunctional?
Even if you choose to read nothing into it, Wallander’s first case is worth checking out.