Wallander revisited, part 1

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.

book-vintage-0099445220-largeFirst 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.

the-dogs-of-rigaIt 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.

6336629The 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.

book-en-vintage-0099450089-largeThe 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.

Wallander

Back in the winter of 2008, just before Christmas, I watched the BBC adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander detective novels. Sufficiently impressed, I worked my way through the books (all ten of them!) plus a collection of short stories. It also engendered a desire to visit Sweden which was never realised, poor ex-student as I was back then.
Once the tranche of Wallanders was finished, I moved on. I read a few more ‘Scandi-noir’ novels – so many in fact that the quality inevitably dropped and I was a little turned off by them. I then discovered Commissario Montalbano and my attention turned to Sicily.
It wasn’t until a chance remark from my sister about a vague wish to visit Stockholm that I thought about Sweden again. And then, in the curious way that the mind works, things went in reverse. The urge to visit Sweden, Skane, Ystad resurfaced and so I went back to the books. Starting again from the very beginning, I am now re-reading the Wallander novels.
It occurred to me that with the benefit of reading the books twice several years apart (as well as watching TV adaptations), now was a good time to start writing some book reviews again. There’s no guarantee of length (or quality) and they won’t appear with any predictable frequency or regularity, but they will appear, promise.

Book Diary – February to April 2015

‘Excursion to Tindari’ by Andrea Camilleri

Sunday 1st February – Friday 6th February

‘The Scent of the Night’ by Andrea Camilleri

Friday 6th February – Monday 9th February

‘Rounding the Mark’ by Andrea Camilleri

Tuesday 10th February – Friday 20th February

‘The Paper Moon’ by Andrea Camilleri

Friday 27th February – Sunday 1st March

‘The Wings of the Sphinx’ by Andrea Camilleri

Sunday 1st March – Tuesday 3rd March

As you can see, a string of Montalbano novels occupied all of February and the beginning of March. There isn’t a great deal more for me to say about them that I haven’t already said, hence me running this post into the next month’s too.

‘A Place of Greater Safety’ by Hilary Mantel

Tuesday 3rd March – Monday 20th April

It’s difficult to know where to begin when writing about a book of this magnitude. By the time I reached the end I could barely remember how it began. A lot of the detail was lost to me, but nevertheless I felt like I had learned a great deal simply by reading this book.

That’s not to say that its only value lay in its ability to educate me about a period of history with which I am not well acquainted. As with all Hilary Mantel’s novels, the story is compelling and the characters utterly believable. Of course, the fact that they existed aids this impression but in some ways it must be even harder to make the development of the novel match the events of history rather than simply following the inclinations of the writer’s imagination. What was most impressive was the way in which I found my sympathies shifting (and, I suspect, being shifted) as the book progressed.

‘Carte Blanche’ by Carlo Lucarelli

Tuesday 21st April

This is possibly the shortest novel I’ve read for a long time, if not the shortest ever. It clocked in at less than a hundred pages and that’s one of the main reasons it was read in less than a day.

The book matches the TV episode very closely and that was probably its greatest criticism. Not that the episode is bad, but it felt as though the novel was lacking a lot of flesh on its bones and that there was nothing new to discover. Had I encountered them in the opposite order, I’m sure the TV episode would have enhanced my enjoyment due to it being so close to the book rather than slightly undermining it.

‘Vincent Van Gogh’ by Inigo F. Walther

Wednesday 22nd April  – Monday 27th April

Following last year’s trip to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I had a heightened degree of respect for VVG. I invested in this biography more for the pictures than the text but both were very satisfying.

The scope of the book only extends as far as his artisitic career, with less than a page dedicated to the first twenty-something years of his life. Instead, there was a nice entry-level analysis of how his style changed throughout his life and why.

Book Diary – January 2015

‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ by Alain De Botton

Thursday 1st January – Sunday 4th January

It’s much easier to write a critical review of a book than to pin down exactly why it is that I love one. This falls in to the latter category. Over the course of ten or eleven chapters, ADB spends time with a range of people in different jobs and tries to explain the value as well as the costs of working life. He manages to produce a book that is amusing, thought-provoking and in places quite moving. His skill lies in presenting the people in a non-judgmental way, whilst at the same time revealing quite intimate details of their working lives and personalities. I’m preparing to have a clear-out of my books soon and will only keep those which I intend to read again. This will definitely be kept as I think it is the sort of book that can be read repeatedly, at different stages of life, and each time will reveal different things to the reader. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

‘American Tabloid’ by James Ellroy

Tuesday 6th January – Sunday 25th January

As always, following a great book is a poisoned chalice. So now what I tend to do is grab a book I know and love to ease the transition into the next book. That way, my craving for something new outweighs the desire for something good and allows me to run the risk of drawing a dud from the ever-present pile of unread stuff. On this occasion, I chose to re-read James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, his reimagining of the events leading up to the assassination of JFK. As ever, he gets you involved with some of the most amoral and/or repulsive sleazebags I’ve encountered in literature and keeps you turning those pages until you reach the end. I’m still in a state of uncomprehending awe at his ability to weave together the thoughts and actions of half-a-dozen or more characters (some of them real and high-profile) into an entirely plausible narrative.

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain De Botton

Sunday 25th January – Sunday 1st February

In a few weeks’ time, we will be visiting Rome for the first time. I’m very excited about it as I have heard almost exclusively good things about the city. I’ve also had an urge to visit Italy for several years and this will be the moment at which intention becomes act. I am really determined to enjoy the visit but at the same time concerned that I am building myself up for almost inevitable disappointment. Therefore it was of great interest to me that ADB had written a book on the subject of travel – why we do it, how we do it, the ways in which we get it wrong and what we might do to enjoy our travels more.

Whilst I am unlikely to lavish this book with the same degree of praise as I did ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’, I still enjoyed it greatly. It was a slower starter, but once again contained passages which gave me the feeling that ADB was somehow reading my mind and articulating my thoughts more accurately than I ever could. The truth is however, that he is often simply collating and quoting the thoughts of others.

The chapter which struck the loudest chord with me was chapter 2, in which ADB describes how Gustave Flaubert felt more in tune with ‘the Orient’ (or Egypt to you and me) than his native France. I must admit that I felt very much at home during the two long weekends Emma and I spent in Amsterdam and at the time of writing would very happily move there permanently.

I don’t think the book is quite as good as ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’ but still provides plenty of food for thought.

Book Diary – December 2014

‘The Potter’s Field’ by Andrea Camilleri

Wednesday 3rd December – Wednesday 10th December

I won’t go into too much detail here as I think I have already written everything there is for me to say about Andrea Camilleri’s novels. Even then, I am probably repeating myself.

What I enjoy most is not so much the story as the opportunity to spend time with the characters. Even though I’m not sure I’d like them as much if they were real people, I enjoy reading the books a great deal and it’s always because of the characters rather than the pretty grim stories.

‘Art as Therapy’ by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

Wednesday 10th December – Friday 19th December

This was a bit of treat with the rest of my leaving-present voucher. It had first caught my eye in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam back in the spring.

In this book, de Botton and Armstrong argue that art is consumed in the wrong ways currently. That we are often left unimpressed because we are told that a painting is impressive without a proper explanation as to why. They contend that we need different art for different purposes and that carefully selected pieces can make us more rounded, balanced individuals.

This is the kind of argument that at first reading can sound like the ramblings of delusional intellectuals or the insight of someone who is capable of looking from a different angle and declaring that in fact the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Their arguments are certainly persuasive, not least because at times they managed to articulate something which had nagged at the back of my mind when visiting galleries – that a piece of world-famous art isn’t actually all that engaging.

‘The Outsider – A History of the Goalkeeper’ by Jonathan Wilson

Friday 19th December – Thursday 1st January 2015

I don’t think I’m stumbling across anything new when I say that certain writers write a certain way. I don’t think George Pelecanos is capable of writing anything other than a crime novel that ends in a violent shoot-out (and the bad guy inevitably dies), and I don’t think Jonathan Wilson is capable of writing in a different style from this. It suffers from the same flaws as ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’ but has the same redeeming qualities too. As ever, the level of research that has gone into this book makes me wonder if Wilson ever sleeps (knowing as I do that he combines his time between South America, Africa, the UK, editing the Blizzard magazine and writing for any sports website/publication that will pay him) and there is lots of interesting information conveyed to the reader throughout.

As mentioned above, it does have flaws: the slightly dry style, a common theme with ‘Nobody Ever Says Thank You’ and the inclusion of some rather dated and seemingly pointless anecdotes which led me to believe that the text was being padded somewhat. As a result, I would question who decides that this book needs to be written as a book, Wilson himself or his publisher. In the end the book goes from a history of the role of goalkeepers in general to a succession of detailed pen-pictures of significant keepers over the last century or so, loosely grouped according to the theme of the chapter. I guess this is where the book comes from – it’s too long to make a readable article on a website (and probably requiring too much research to make such a prospect profitable for JW), but probably lacking enough material for the full-length book to be an outright success.

Perhaps I’m casting JW in the role he identifies the goalkeeper here and picking up on a few mistakes rather than highlighting the many successes of this book. It is successful in analysing the origins of the role and identifying why it is regarded with such wariness by most people, and charting the subsequent evolution of the role, influenced by the changes in rules and tactics over time. In all, it should be applauded for covering all the angles and not remembered for straying from its line occasionally.

Book Diary – November 2014

‘Gentlemen & Players’ by Joanne Harris Wednesday 5th November – Saturday 15th November This came highly recommended by Emma and she was right on the money. It very rapidly had me hooked to the point that I think I read it in about five large chunks rather than steadily over the course of the ten days. The story is not what I would usually read in some ways, but that meant it was a refreshing change rather than a strange, foreign experience. I would definitely recommend it to virtually anyone as a very good thriller.

‘The Age of Doubt’ by Andrea Camilleri

Saturday 15th November – Sunday 16th November

‘The Dance of the Seagull’ by Andrea Camilleri

Monday 17th November – Tuesday 18th November

[Insert standard Andrea Camilleri Montalbano novel review here/]

‘The Village Against the World’ by Dan Hancox

Tuesday 18th November -Wednesday 3rd December

An interesting book which I bought with my Dalebrook leaving-present gift voucher. It concerns a small town in southern Spain which has spent the last thirty years developing into a communist utopia to improve the lives of its residents.

While an interesting history of the village and profile of its major figures, I felt the book was lacking something. Maybe it would benefit from re-reading in the not-too-distant future for me to appreciate some of the finer points. It raises many questions but doesn’t answer them – I’m not sure it even tries to be honest. As a result it feels truncated and a little unfulfilling, despite also being interesting and well-written.

Book Diary Special – ‘Perfidia’ by James Ellroy

Friday 12th September – paused Friday 3rd October

Hmmmm. What to write? I don’t want to say too much as I am less than a fifth of the way through the book, and so there is plenty of opportunity for me opinions to change. However, I can’t get away from the fact that I am disappointed with it. I’m beginning to come around to the idea that James Ellroy’s best writing is at least a decade in the past, if not actually over two decades ago. I remember finding ‘Blood’s a Rover’ an underwhelming and overly political, overly wordy conclusion to the Underworld USA trilogy, and ‘Perfidia’ seems to have picked up in the same vein. The biggest flaw I can see so far is that it seems that Ellroy has written the book simply to crowbar as many of his favourite characters from previous novels into the same narrative as possible. Not only that, but he is revising their histories and insodoing slightly undermining the strength of the previous (and better) work. Finally, his preoccupation with making the majority of his characters as flawed and compromised as possible only serves to make the suspension of disbelief more challenging.

* * * * *

Resumed 18th October – Sunday 2nd November

I wrote the above before pausing the book and moving on to a couple of quicker reads. I then reluctantly went back to ‘Perfidia’ and a very strange thing happened: it all clicked. Suddenly, the characters weren’t as frustrating, the prose wasn’t so overwrought and I zipped through the remaining 550 pages at a much faster rate. In fact, the last 300 pages were read inside about 72 hours as my enjoyment snowballed.

The thing that I found most impressive (and I expect I will continue to be impressed by) was the consistency with the later books. I am looking forward to the next three editions of this quartet to see just how James Ellroy ties the various threads of his imaginary Los Angeles together so that the lives of these recurring characters arrive at the points they should be come the start of the novels in the later (set) LA Quartet. Given his ability to weave half a dozen threads together in each novel, I’m confident that this is well withing JE’s grasp.

Despite its great length, I will definitely re-read this – probably embarking on an epic string of Ellroy upon the publication of the final volume, and maybe even tying it in with the first Quartet for an even more ambitious 8-book chronological extravaganza.