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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The Bridge

As I suggested in my previous post, I have started watching ‘The Bridge’, a Swedish/Danish co-produced detective series.

The basic set-up is that a body is found in the middle of the Oresund Bridge, which links the Danish capital Copenhagen with the Swedish city of Malmö. In fact, the body is found right on the dividing line between the two countries’ jurisdictions, and matters are complicated further when forensics go to move the body and find that it is actually the legs of one woman arranged beneath the torso of a different woman. To seal the deal and ensure that the Danish and Swedish police forces are both involved, one woman was Swedish and the other Danish.

This bizarre premise sets up what looks to be unfolding into a fairly standard serial-killer-with-a-grudge-about-certain-social-issues story (his initial point is that we aren’t all equal before the law – the Danish victim was a prostitute and when she went missing the investigation was shelved after a fortnight, and he posits the theory that the investigation into the Swedish woman’s murder won’t end s quickly as she is a politician and so in the public eye).

However, the story isn’t really what prompted me to blog. The visual style of the show is very distinctive and reminds me of the BBC’s production of the Wallander series and also something else, and I can’t quite remember what. The vast majority of the action happens at night, but rather than being dark the areas are lit by the harsh artificial glow of streetlights and neon signs. It is often the case that the only thing moving on screen is the scene’s main characters, and the sound has been altered so that often there is no background noise other than that made by the actions of the characters, giving the whole thing a disturbed, dreamlike quality. It is also preoccupied with showing the less attractive areas of Copenhagen and Malmö. This, combined with the washed-out palette lends a feeling not so much of despair but more disappointment or disillusionment to the proceedings, as if it isn’t just the colours that have faded, but hope too.

Finally, the Swedish detective Saga Noren (the blonde lady in the picture) is as nutty as a fruitcake. I honestly have no idea how she got through any form of psychological screening to become a police officer. Her behaviour is truly eccentric; she is blunt beyond the point of rudeness, utterly selfish and inconsiderate and seems completely unaware of the social norms (twice in the first episode she strips down to her bra to change her top, both times in the middle of conversations with her boss or her new partner as if nothing could be more normal).

There is also a sequence involving her which goes something like this:

Scene 1:

[Saga is wandering around her flat reading a large book entitled ‘Equality Before The Law’ or something similar. She pauses, puts her hand down her trousers and smiles.]

Scene 2:

[Saga walks into a bar. Makes eye contact with Handsome Chappy across the bar. He walks over.]

HC: Are you waiting for someone?

SN: No.

HC: Can I buy you a drink?

SN: No

[HC walks back to his original position, turns his back on SN and has a drink. SN waits a couple of seconds, clearly confused and then follows him.]

SN: Why did you walk away? [pause] I just didn’t want you to buy me a drink.

HC: [puzzled] OK….

SN: Would you like to have sex with me back at my flat?

HC: [pleasantly confused] Yes, definitely.

[They leave]

Scene 3:

SN and HC are having sex. They finish. She rolls over, turning her back on HC and taking 99% of the duvet with her, all without saying a word, and promptly dozes off. HC is understandably confused.

A few minutes later, HC has dozed off, and SN wakes up. She seems a little surprised to find HC in bed next to her, promptly removes his arm from her shoulders and gets up, fires up her laptop and starts browsing through the autopsy findings which were given to her on CD earlier.

Unfortunately, I have only managed to get the first three episodes on iPlayer, so the third will determine whether or not I invest in the DVD. There are only ten episodes, and with the DVD costing £25 online at the moment, it’s one which will have to wait if I decide to continue with doolally detectives and sleazy Scandinavia.