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.

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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 – 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 – September and October 2014

‘Intrusion’ by Ken MacLeod

Saturday 6th September – Thursday 11th September

This was a leaving present from Lili, and came highly recommended. In the end, I think I read it in about five large chunks rather than steadily and consistently. While I don’t think Ken MacLeod is a brilliant writer, he had some great ideas and managed to make the book very readable. The future society he created was very convincing and there were some original ideas in there too, for example the idea that trees had been genetically modified to process more greenhouse gases and so were causing the climate to change just as dramatically as it is in reality, but instead it was making the planet colder, not warmer. If this book had a weakness it would be the ending. It was hard to predict where the book was going, but when the ending came it came suddenly and seemed a little contrived and vaguely explained. However, I was reading late at night, so it could be the case that the last couple of chapters would be better served by a second reading. That shouldn’t detract totally from what was otherwise an entertaining and diverting novel.

‘The Treasure Hunt’ by Andrea Camilleri

Saturday 4th October – Friday 10th October

Taking a break from ‘Perfidia’ I decided the best plan was to whizz through a Montalbano novel as these provide a refreshingly light read whenever called upon.

This was no different, and though it took me a whole six days to read, this was more down to the lack of opportunity to read at work than the readability of the book itself.

‘A Season with Verona’ by Tim Parks

Saturday 11th October – Friday 17th October

Having enjoyed the break from Perfidia, I decided to read another. I picked this out from the pile of unread books as it pandered to my interest in both Italy and Italian football. Clearly, I got through it very quickly – 450-odd pages in less than a week. However, that shouldn’t disguise the fact that it was a disappointment.

I think the author was aiming to write a travel book about football, and in both cases he falls short. In all honesty, the book is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a fly-on-the-wall account of the Hellas Verona season, nor is it an undercover-reporter style account of Tim Parks’ travels with the hardcore Hellas supporters. Nor for that matter is it an examination of the regional peculiarities of Italy seen through the lens of football.

After a while, I came to the conclusion that this was a diary, even though it isn’t presented as that. What frustrated me even more was that while the author attends every match, there are a handful of games where the performance is so bad that he simply mentions that he doesn’t want to dwell upon them and so they aren’t discussed. Overall, a book for which I had high hopes and was disappointed. I’m not sure I’d bother reading it again.

Book Diary – August 2014

‘L.A. Confidential’ by James Ellroy

Friday 1st August – Tuesday 12th August

Taking a break from ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and in preparation for the imminent publication of ‘Perfidia’, I decided to treat myself to a James Ellroy. I re-read my favourite, ‘White Jazz’ a couple of years ago, so I was then torn between either ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘American Tabloid’ – and as you can see, ‘L.A. Confidential’ won.

It’s difficult to properly articulate what a brilliant writer James Ellroy is. I think I may have tried before, but I probably failed then and will fail again now. The only reason that he is not head-and-shoulders above all others in my esteem is because his early novels are not all that amazing. However, nobody can make neon-tinted sleaze seem so gloriously admirable as JE. ‘L..A. Confidential’ is a prime example. Anyone who has seen the film will be familiar with elements of the story, but despite that film’s 18-rating, it barely scratches the surface of the depravity and cruelty of the novel, and yet there are few books I have read that can match this for sheer excitement and readability.

‘The Shock of the New’ by Robert Hughes

Thursday 24th October 2013 – Wednesday 3rd September 2014

Feeling arty, I decided to take a break from the procession of Zens in December and get my teeth into something more challenging and educational.

In the end, it took me a long time to read the book. The first few chapters were slow and heavy going, and it was only when I resumed reading in August 2014 that I finally made some rapid progress.

This is often the case with more ‘intellectual’ books. The early pages are establishing the context for everything that follows, and so often contain a lot of disparate information (or so it seems at first).

I’m also concerned that most of the information went straight through my head without registering too closely on the brain as it passed. There is almost too much to take in and too much competition for an already stretched attention budget when reading in the environment of a workplace kitchen at lunchtime.