While skimming through a Lonely Planet guidebook for Sweden, I noticed a special feature on Wallander and Ystad. In it, there was a comment along the lines of ‘even the most hardened fans will admit that the series doesn’t really get going until the fourth book’. As I have now read the first four, it seems like an appropriate place to gather my thoughts and commit them to the screen.
First up is Faceless Killers. This is our introduction to Wallander and takes place in early January, 1991. An old couple are murdered in their farmhouse and the old lady’s dying words implicate foreigners. Cue racist attacks on immigrant camps, a bit of media hysteria and some solid Scandinavian detective work. There’s also a discussion on Sweden’s immigration policy which plays out in the relatively safe confines of the mind of Kurt Wallander; all together you have a nice debut for the character.
This is one of my favourite Wallander novels. It’s pretty short and features some relatively realistic detective work in there too. This isn’t something you could say about the second novel, The Dogs Of Riga. It bowled along, taking me with it and it wasn’t until I stopped to think about it for a few moments that I realised just how daft it all is.
It starts with the discovery of two dead bodies in a life raft. They turn out to be Latvian, so a Latvian detective visits Sweden for a few days to help invevstigate. He doesn’t say much, and promptly returns to Riga, where he is almost instantly murdered. Wallander then flies to Riga because someone has had the idea that he might somehow be able to help the local police solve the murder of his Latvian counterpart. While there he meets the grieving widow (promptly falling hopelessly in love with her) and becomes involved in some sort of anti-communist resistance movement. After returning to Sweden he is smuggled back into Latvia where he runs around a lot before sneaking into police headquarters, pooing in a bin (no, really) and escaping with the vital evidence that proves Colonel Leipa’s murder was an inside job. He’s then cornered on a rooftop and narrowly escapes being shot by any one of a number of corrupt Latvian policemen before being saved by the other main suspect in a twist that is probably visible from space. Needless to say, this is the weakest of the novels. If memory serves, Henning Mankell admits in the afterword that he wanted to write about the struggles of countries emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union and so this seems to be a case of a book being stretched around a vague idea and not benefitting from the experience.
The third novel, The White Lioness, is something of a step up. The story here concerns a plot to assassinate a prominent anti-apartheid politician in South Africa which starts to unravel when an innocent Swedish lady is in the wrong place at the wrong time and is ‘silenced’. It still has its moments of unrealism (if such a thing exists) and it still feels as though the story is a vehicle for a political point that Henning Mankell is keen to get across. My biggest problem with this book was actually the amount of time spent away from Wallander, Sweden and the murder investigation and with some unpleasant white supremacists in South Africa. The other problem I had was that many of the characters (particularly those in the South African settings) seemed very one-dimensional. They were either the aforementioned white supremacists, brave and humble, spirit-unbroken black civilians or the couple of less appealing black characters were portrayed as being so damaged and corrupted by their environment that one couldn’t help but feel sympathy.
The final of the first four is The Man Who Smiled, which avoids many of the pitfalls of the previous three. For a start, it is based entirely in Skane and spends almost all of its time concerned with the investigation. Again, the theme here seems (to me) to be fairly transparent. Mankell is writing about how big business and those that lead high-profile international companies are virtually immune from legal restrictions.The book is pretty chunky and as with The White Lioness there were times when I thought a careful prune of the text would not have done it any harm. It also suffers from an unrealistic ending as Wallander (paunchy, late-forty-something, small-town policeman) morphs into resourceful action hero to break the case.
In conclusion, the first four novels are fairly weak with the first being the strongest of the four but encouraging signs appearing as the books go on. I’m looking forward to re-reading the rest to see the improvement promised by the guidebook.