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.



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 2012

‘The Troubled Man’ by Henning Mankell

Friday 31st December 2011 – Friday 6th January 2012

The last of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander series, and one of the best.

‘The Tattoo Murder Case’ by Akimitsu Takagi

Friday 6th January 2012 – Saturday 14th January 2012

A very interesting story. It took a little while to really grab me, and the prim prose combined with a couple of rather contrived plot points stopped it being a great book, but I will certainly read another Akimitsu Takagi if I can get hold of one cheaply.

‘The Cut’ by George Pelecanos

Saturday 14th January – Friday 20th January

This is George Pelecanos’s latest novel, and follows a format. As always, very readable, but the end felt a little half-hearted and predictable. It’s not that I don’t enjoy GP’s books, I just want one which doesn’t end in a shootout in which everyone gets just about what they deserve.

 ‘Mustn’t Grumble – In Search Of England And The English’ by Joe Bennett

Friday 20th January – Saturday 28th January

This was a Christmas present from the mothership, and, if I’m being totally honest, a book I probably wouldn’t have chosen for myself. However, I enjoyed it, found it very readable and would read another of the author’s books. In essence it is an English Bill Bryson. Joe Bennett has returned to England after a couple of decades in New Zealand and is going ‘in search of England’. Along the way he discovers how England is changing and makes some very astute and thought-provoking observations. My only real criticism would be that the book ends very suddenly.

‘Shoedog’ by George Pelecanos

Saturday 28th January – Tuesday 31st January

The first standalone George Pelecanos novel, and I would go so far as to say one of his best, if not the best. It is only 198 pages – probably explaining how I read it in 3 days – but is more lean and concise than some of his later books (this one is from way back in 1994) which does it no harm at all. It bowls along at a really good pace, and yet contains all of the usual details of character and place. This book was intended to last a little longer, and kick off ‘George Pelecanos Month’ which involved me reading ‘Shoedog’, ‘Drama City’, ‘The Turnaround’ and his latest, only-just-published novel, ‘What It Was’ throughout February. Depending on my progress, it might turn into ‘George Pelecanos Fortnight’.