The Kurt Wallander series was one of the first of the Scandinavian mystery series to cause a buzz in North America, but I was frustrated by the fact that the earliest volumes weren’t translated into English as quickly as I wanted them.
You see, I’m obsessive about reading mystery series in order, which can traced back to a traumatic experience surrounding my reading of Kinsey Millhone’s ‘E’ and “C” before “A” many years ago (in Sue Grafton’s series).
It wasn’t until I heard the World Book Club’s podcast about Faceless Killers (the first novel in the series) that I realized that I was free to read at last.
In fact The Pyramid was translated into English (by Ebba Segerberg and Laurie Thompson) and published in 2008. I am definitely late to the Henning Mankell party.
He realized after writing Sidetracked, the fifth volume in the Kurt Wallander series, that he had started to write, in his head, stories that predated the series.
Readers, too, were curious about this character’s life “before” and eventually two of these were published in newspapers and the other two and The Pyramid appeared in this volume for the first time.
Had I not heard the interview with the author, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed these stories as much. The interview was entirely based around the first novel, not this book, but Henning Mankell’s diction and self-expression has an abruptness to it that is mirrored in his writing style.
The prose is certainly bare-bones and matter-of-fact. And in combination with Wallander’s cyclical frustration with the various relationships in this life, I might have set the series aside.
(Which isn’t to say that I’m not sympathetic to his frustrations with his aging father, with his disappointing romantic life, with his difficulty keeping in contact with his young adult daughter.)
But in person Mankell’s humour comes across, and he is obviously fond of Wallander, for all his flaws; I can hear his voice when I am reading, and it definitely adds a level of enjoyment that I’d not have had otherwise.
It’s also an advantage to know, from the start, that he discovered a subtitle for the series after he had finished writing it: “Novels about the Swedish Anxiety”.
What is happening to the Sweden that Wallander thought he knew?
“And what is Swedish, exactly?” Rydberg asked. “There are no longer any borders. Not for airplanes nor serious criminals. Once Ystad lay at the outskirts of something. What happened in Stockholm did not happen here. Not even things that occurred in Malmö were typical in a small town like Ystad. But that time is over.”
This thread runs through all these stories, Wallander’s sense that the Sweden he thought he knew has changed dramatically.
Faceless Killers is the first Kurt Wallander mystery proper. If you are completely and entirely obsessive about reading stories chronologically, then you, too, will begin with The Pyramid, the last story of which, the title story, brings the reader to Faceless Killers.
Still fresh from the separation with Mona, our hero is adjusting to life as a single man with difficulty. Which might strike one as funny because neither Mona nor Linda, his teenage daughter, made more than fleeting appearances in the earlier stories either. (So I don’t count this revelation as a spoiler.)
It’s not that he is intentionally unkind; he is preoccupied with his life as a policeman. So the fleeting references to Mona and Linda are really the same, regretful glimpses.
And these regrets are intensifed by his growing awareness of his father’s descent, not only into old age, but a cloying loneliness that is accompanied by increasingly frequent exhibitions of dementia. He finally involves his sister, Kristina, with whom he no longer shares a close relationship either.
“Wallander could see that his sister was shocked at their father’s decline. Together they cleaned out the stinking rubbish and filthy clothes. ‘How could this happen?’ she asked, and Wallander felt that she was blaming him.” (210)
But Wallander’s father is not an easy man to deal with. When asked by a reader in the World Book Club podcast about this novel (come on, it’s been days since I raved about the WBC), Henning Mankell states that he deliberately gave Wallander this problem. He wanted him to have something to wrestle with.
Wallander’s father represents a fear of change. Even at a tangible level, he is most comfortable with the familiar. He is a painter, one who earns decent money from his work, but he repeatedly paints a rural scene; down to the colour of sky it’s the same every time, with the only possible variation being whether or not a grouse appears in the bottom left corner.
And Wallander, in turn, is forced to deal with change. He’s still anxious about the ways in which it seems Sweden is changing. And if it is these concerns which drive his decision to pursue policework, it is no wonder that he cannot leave it behind at the end of the day (either his job, or his anxiety).
Nonetheless, his skills are developing, and there is quite a trajectory between the first story in The Pyramid and this novel. Wallander is becoming a professional.
“He knew that he’d done a good job. He had trusted his intuition, acted without hesitation, and it had produced results. The thought of the crazy…[snipped bits of plot] gave him the shakes. But the relief was still there.” (212)
As for the cases in this volume, there are two, interfolded. The first is one which makes for a strong narrative because it is such a frightening concept, a seemingly unanswerable crime.
The second is one which is equally chilling because its root is in the fear of change, something inherently human, which is very much an element of this series’ characters, but here with devastating consequences that erupt from a mindset which has taken this fear to an extreme.
But as is often the case, I don’t think readers come here just for the mystery; it’s because of Kurt Wallander.
In that interview I keep mentioning, Henning Mankell states that he regularly has women ask him to tell Wallander about them, as though hopeful that a match will be made.
I would not be one of those women, but I do think there is a match to be made between me and this series of novels. (Are you one of those women?)
Had I not heard the author’s interview, I’m not sure I would have been so engaged (the style is a bit nuts-and-bolts-ish, but it reflects the author’s delivery). But, as it is, I am keen to readThe Dogs of Riga.
And apparently a lot of other people are too, as I plucked book one from the library shelves, but there is a hold list for book two. For a novel in translation, by Steven T. Murray, originally published in 1991 (published in 1997 in English), that’s quite something.
What do you think is the charm of this series? Do you follow along?
Or has another Swedish crime-fighter captured your reader’s attentions?