This book made me feel sick to my stomach. Not because it was too gory or because what was written disagreed with me in a philosophical way, but becau...moreThis book made me feel sick to my stomach. Not because it was too gory or because what was written disagreed with me in a philosophical way, but because I have grown to care about Kurt Wallander over the eight books I've read -- maybe even seeing a bit of myself in him -- and it's in this book that he is most under siege, and that feeling of being under attack was the feeling that made me feel ill.
His protege, Martinsson, the man he trained in the way his mentor Ryberg trained him, the man he kept in the police force when he was about to quit, the man he most trusted, has been quietly out to get him, undermining him with the police chief, the prosecutor's office, and his other colleagues.
His love life is a shambles, and when he finally sees a glimmer of hope it turns out to be an illusion designed to use him.
His personal relationships are all amok. His daugther is distant; his father is dead; his step-mother is playing at guilt; he can't see the one person closest to him for her closeness, so he keeps pushing her away (or, at least, maintaining his distance); he's even losing people he counted on without knowing it and finding it impossible to connect with the new people that are coming in to take their place.
And each of these bits and piece of Wallander's character made me physically ill. I've been where he's at (I may even be where he's at to some extent), and when all of those personal issues were coupled with real physical danger as a result of the case he was solving, I found myself reacting as if I could be a voice in his head, screaming advice, willing him to make positive decisions, begging him to stand up for himself.
It was an uncomfortable mirror for me, really, and it did its job of building and maintaining tension better than any other Wallander book I've read. It's entirely possible that this tension only works if someone connects with Wallander as I did, but it is there to be found if you are lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to make that connection.(less)
A Swedish national, a "sports" journalist, goes missing in Budapest, behind the "Iron Curtain." It's the height of the Cold War, and Swedish homicide...moreA Swedish national, a "sports" journalist, goes missing in Budapest, behind the "Iron Curtain." It's the height of the Cold War, and Swedish homicide detective Martin Beck, about to enjoy his vacation, is sent, instead, to look into the disappearance.
A Canadian boy would expect a 70s Budapest to be riddled with spies and spying and suspicion. A Canadian boy would expect oppressiveness and oppression at every Hungarian turn. A Canadian boy would expect high adventure mixed with the KGB and CIA. A Canadian boy would expect an international murder, with international implications. A Canadian boy would expect something thrillingly action packed. A Canadian boy would be wrong, though.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo were not as foolish as the Canadian boy. They didn't have his prejudices and indoctrinations. They knew the story they were telling, and they told it their way, with integrity. So their story has a beautiful Budapest, with bath houses, and quays and the Danube outside Metropolitan hotels. It has local police just like anyone else's police, no better or worse, just doing their job. It has a little danger at the hands of some German drug dealers who make their home in Budapest. And the solution to the mystery of the missing man is mundane and lying back in Sweden. Budapest was just a step in the path to the appropriately depressing conclusion.
It is what all the Martin Beck mysteries are -- true -- and that is the highest praise I can bestow on a work of fiction. (less)
It is about the homegrown terrorists we make through our capitalist greed, our ever increasing inequality, our casting aside of those who don't fit into our neat ideas of a "normal" society.
It is about the ideological terrorists who fight for a cause that isn't ours with whatever tools are at their disposal, tearing apart flesh and bone with bombs, blasting holes into skulls with bullets projected from sniper rifles, using their bodies as delivery systems for death -- all to make a point they feel can't be made any other way.
It is about the terrorists who own us and rule us and manipulate us using the apparatus of government, unjust laws, and armed security forces to keep us in line.
It is about the armies that we send out to kill and maim and destroy in our names.
It is about how we move through our world surrounded by terrorists, maybe even being these terrorists ourselves, and how we can keep some modicum of what we like to imagine is our "humanity" in the face of it all.
Leonard Kollberg and Martin Beck, Gunn Kollberg and Rhea Olsson manage to keep some of that humanity. I think Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wished a portion of it upon us all.(less)
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote their Martin Beck series in the sixties and seventies. They wrote ten novels in ten years. They wrote about a time wi...more Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote their Martin Beck series in the sixties and seventies. They wrote ten novels in ten years. They wrote about a time without computers and modern gadgets, but apart from those conveniences themselves, the books could have been written yesterday.
These books are about everything that continues to be wrong in our societies. They are about carceration, misplaced conceptions of justice and the omnipresence of injustice. They are about the militarization of police forces and police culpability in the crimes they are expressly formed to fight. They are about an environment under siege by our way of living. They are about our fears of sexuality and society's role in controlling our desires. They are about rape culture and the fight of women to control their bodies and own their sexuality. They are about the disaffection of our children and young adults. They are about failing economies, people without work, the haves having more and the have-nots having so little that they turn to crime in despair. They are about the need for forgiveness. They are about guilt and conscience and ethics. And they show that not a damn thing has changed (at least in the Canada of today, the country I live in, it hasn't. Canada right now is the Sweden of the seventies and that is fucking depressing).
Into all of these issues, spanning nine years a this point, are thrust Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg. They solve murders for the National Police Squad. They are men of conscience, actively struggling everyday with the issues Sjöwall & Wahlöö drop in their path. By the close of the book, one of them resigns from the force he once loved and now disdains. The other goes wearily on. People die over the course of Cop Killer, even a cop (though the "actual" cop killer is rather surprising). The wrong man is railroaded into prison to await trial for a crime he didn't commit simply because it is the path of least resistance. Other men are hunted and ear-marked for death because of coincidence. A girl is bitten repeatedly in the groin by an attack dog because she helped some friends (though she'd already surrendered when the dog attacked). A cop and a man he helped convict of murder (now free after serving his sentence) sit down over a seltzer water and an aquavit to share their guilt over the people they've killed. And one cop looks forward to eating a meal with the woman he loves. It's all here in this marvellous book.
Make no mistake, these books are not to be taken lightly; they are literature. They should be the canon of police procedurals. If you love detective stories and you've not read the Martin Beck books you need to get started. You'll see why.
p.s. If you decide to read this series take my advice and reread Roseanna just before you read this for the first time. I did quite by accident and a happy accident it was.(less)
I could plot out the book and discuss all that action rot, but what really matters in this eighth book in Sjowall and Wahloo’s masterwork can be boile...moreI could plot out the book and discuss all that action rot, but what really matters in this eighth book in Sjowall and Wahloo’s masterwork can be boiled down to two points: 1. Martin Beck; and 2. the illusions of justice.
1. Martin Beck is in less than half of this eighth book. While his friends and colleagues are seconded to the Robbery department trying to solve a murder in a recent bank robbery, and to end a seemingly linked rash of bank robberies entirely, Beck has been handed a case (sort of an act of rehabilitation to ease him back into service after his recovery from a bullet to the chest) of apparent suicide, which turns out to be a classic "locked room" murder. When Beck is around, though, boy does he tower over the story. His quiet investigation is the one that matters; his scrupulous and plodding methodology is the effective methodology; his conscience is the moral core of the series; his love for Rhea Nielson (a lefty landlord he bumps into during his investigation) is a necessary lesson about the characters we’ve come to love in the series, and not just Beck, of whom we learn the most, but even those men who never meet Rhea. is Beck’s tale, even when he’s off-screen, and Beck’s denouement (because it is all his) is as satisfying for us as it is frustrating.
2. The illusions of justice loom even larger over the story than Martin Beck. I can’t help feeling that Sjowall and Wahloo don’t believe that justice is something we should aspire to let alone something that is even possible. Not that they come out and say that. But they ask questions and leave them unanswered, making us do the work: is it just for a man to be imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit while being simultaneously acquitted for a crime he did commit? Does the success of one false conviction make up for the failure of what could have been a genuine conviction? Is it just for the perpetrator of one of the killings to go free due to her social standing and circumstances? Is the manipulation of data a just way to expand power? Is a class based society inherently unjust? Is it just to control a person? To impede a person? To listen to one person over another? To judge a person? To have one's own perspective? Is perspective inherently unjust? As I have said, they don't even try to answer these questions. They want us to think about the answers for ourselves, and I adore them for that.
This series is better with each installment, and I am increasingly convinced that this is detective fiction of truly literary calibre. Usually I wouldn't want a series of this quality to end, but this time I want to finish it as soon as possible so I can continue the reread I've already begun. It's THAT good.
When I finished Roseanna again last night I thought I should write a review talking about how rare it is for me to reread a book, and how Sjöwall &...moreWhen I finished Roseanna again last night I thought I should write a review talking about how rare it is for me to reread a book, and how Sjöwall & Wahloo have conjured something exceptional from me as a reader. When I started thinking about how rare it is for me to reread, however, I realized what a load of crap that is.
So rereading Roseanna isn't so special after all. It isn't some rare occurrence. It's business as usual when I find something worth reading again and again. And this book is that.
I have been listening to these books for my "first reading" and I recently reached the seventh book, The Abominable Man, wherein the interdependence of Sjöwall & Wahloo tales suddenly focused into a clear picture. They wrote ten books in their Martin Beck series, and it struck me that it is one of the only series I've read (apart from Lord of the Rings) where the authors had the entire series mapped out before they started.
I decided to test that theory by actually reading Roseanna (rather than listening), and it appears that I was correct. Beck and Kollberg are fully conceived from the first moment. There is no authorial searching for what these men will be, no feeling out their relationship and personalities. Everything is there. Everything is ready, and everything that is coming for these men (the two constants in the series so far) are there waiting for them. I can see it in their decisions, their emotions, their concerns, their actions -- everything.
I gave this book four stars when I first read it, but loved it enough to pass it on to a good friend (she loved it too). Now I have to give it five stars. I think the series itself constitutes a masterpiece, but as first chapters go, Roseanna is perfection.(less)
I exhale my breath in a long deep sigh. I've just finished listening to what is probably the most cinematic of all the Sjowall and Wahloo Beck books (...moreI exhale my breath in a long deep sigh. I've just finished listening to what is probably the most cinematic of all the Sjowall and Wahloo Beck books (maybe not the best, but certainly the most evocative), and for the first time (despite the excellence of the entire series) I want to drop everything I'm doing and get started on the next book.
I need to know how the serious cliffhanger resolves. I need to see the fallout of everything that's happened, I need to see how these men, some of whom I hate and some of whom I love, handle the carnage they've been part of and have helped to bring about directly or indirectly.
I sit here typing with a slight pain in my back when I should be cleaning or grocery shopping, and I think of writing a book with the qualities of The Abominable Man. Its unique in the Beck series for taking the shortest time from crime to resolution. A day passes. That's all. And that is a huge departure from a series that is all about the banality of police procedure. It is a crime where the criminal might actually want to be caught, but we can't know that for sure. It's a bloody crime that leads to a crime some might call crazed (with a lone gunman on the roof of an apartment block killing police) but I call desperate.
It moves from action to action to action. It throws together two pairings of cops who hate each other, separating them from their usual, comfortable partners. It makes us care about them all. It makes us care about two of the other victims, dumb ass radio cops from earlier books. It makes us care about the murderer, to see where he is coming from. It makes us loathe the murderer's first victim, and love our eponymous hero more than we ever have before. Thus I realize that I couldn't write a book with The Abominable Man's qualities. Not from scratch. The Abominable Man is excellent because it is preceded by six other books, and those books built the milieu through which all of these men heroes, villains, victims, victimizers and buffoons move. It is a book that only patience of purpose and playing the long game could create.
I'll need seven books to get there. Better get writing. (less)
All six forewords for all six Martin Beck books I've read (in order) have made much of the authors' Marxist backgrounds. I can't remember who wrote wh...moreAll six forewords for all six Martin Beck books I've read (in order) have made much of the authors' Marxist backgrounds. I can't remember who wrote what and what they wrote exactly, but most of them are quick to warn readers of Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö politics, then -- most times -- they are just as quick to let us know that those politics rarely intrude on on their writing, so we readers shouldn't have any problem enjoying their mysteries.
The writers of the forewords talk a lot about their love of the police procedural as a form, or Sjöwall & Wahlöö's impact on the writers who've followed them and their relevance today, or they talk about how well the books hold up forty years on and how much fun they are to read. Then they remind us, once again, not to worry about the authors' Socialist ideals, as though they are apologizing for Sjöwall & Wahlöö, or are ashamed to admit they love the work of a pair of pinko-Swedes.
I have no such shame. If anything, I've been disappointed throughout the series that Sjöwall & Wahlöö's politics haven't been more obvious in their books. I want more socio-economic criticism from the radical left (although their brand of Marxism is hardly radical), so I am thrilled that Polis, polis, potatismos! (the original Swedish title of Murder at the Savoy) and its Marxist ending finally satisfied my craving for more.
The criticism is expressed in a feeling Martin Beck has while walking home after solving the murder of industrialist Viktor Palmgren. It's a feeling he can't shake because a poor man, a beaten man, a useless man waits to spend his life in prison for killing Palmgren, and Palmgren was the man who kept the poor man poor by making him poorer still, beat him into submission through the bludgeon of greed and made him useless to himself and everyone around him. It's Beck's sadness that carries the Marxist opinions of Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and in this series that I have thoroughly enjoyed, I have finally found a moment I can also love. Beck walking home is my favourite moment so far.
I'm not expecting to see much overt Marxism in the rest of the books -- Sjöwall & Wahlöö tend to be too subtle for that -- but that will simply make me savour this book's chapter all the more. (less)
I can't remember what I've said previously about the Martin Beck books (beyond my general positivity), so I apologize if you find me repeating myself...moreI can't remember what I've said previously about the Martin Beck books (beyond my general positivity), so I apologize if you find me repeating myself (I am too lazy to go back and read all my previous reviews). I think it is also important to note that my star rating here is contrasted with the other books I've read in the series. The rating doesn't reflect my feelings about The Fire Engine that Disappeared compared to all books -- only other Martin Beck books.
That business complete, I have to say "I dig these books!" They are amongst the best police procedurals I've read, and all Swedish crime fiction (perhaps all crime fiction) since the sixties, including (especially?) Steig Larsson, owes these books an immeasurable debt. But I don't care about the plot of this book tonight. I care about the characters, which is, I think, what Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo most wanted us to care about.
Martin Beck -- The man from which the series gets its name is not much more than a bit player in this tale, but he's still the place to start. He is the pivot around which everything else revolves, and the relationship between himself and his daughter, Ingrid, is one of the most beautiful father-daughter relationships I've ever read. It is true in a way that other manifestations simply aren't. At one point, she suggests that he should move out of the family home as she's about to do, hinting at a much needed divorce from the wife and son that make him so miserable. It is an expression of trusting intimacy that is potently honest. I can't help but love them both for that moment.
Kollberg -- Sarcastic, bombastic, sextastic, Kollberg has been my favourite throughout the series, and he remains so here. He starts out petulant and sarcastic, fucking with the rookie, Benny Skacke, incessantly, and winds up with nine inches of steel in his belly. It's a sweet little arc that keeps my favourite vibrant and alive. Will he still be anti-gun after his stabbing? I'm guessing yes. Dogmatically so.
Benny Skacke -- And speaking of young Skacke ... not too bad. He's a smart operator, and it is all down to his tenacity. I get the feeling that his desire to be Chief of Police is going to come to fruition by book ten. And his final error, the error that leads to serious danger, is the kind of error that will be misconstrued as heroism -- much to his benefit. Lucky bastard.
Gunvald Larsson -- Perhaps the most important man in this book, Gunvald Larsson is also the biggest prick, the most unlikeable, the most insufferable. He's the ugly cop. He's not dirty, no, no. But he is brutal, unswerving, unreasonable. He is a bully of the worst kind. He is mean, insulting, close-minded, foolish. Yet he starts this book as a hero, dragging eight people from a horrible house fire. And he milks it for all he can.
Einar Rönn -- He's Larsson's best friend, and he brings Gunvald a bunch of flowers while he's recovering from his heroism, to which his friend wonders aloud: "Did you pick them off a grave, Rönn?" Rönn winces, genuinely hurt, but his love for Larsson never wavers. Dumb? Yes. But I can't help loving him for it, and as cops go he's actually kind of okay.
Fredrik Melander -- is just plain old Melander. He pseudo-solves things early on. He loves his Plain Jane wife. He is his ordinary boring self. I can't do anything but love him for who he is.
And that, ultimately, is what makes me love these books. The characters. They are true. True and real. And I can't and won't ask for more.
One of the things I dig most about the "Martin Beck" mysteries is that they are only named "Martin Beck" mysteries out of convenience. He's the highes...moreOne of the things I dig most about the "Martin Beck" mysteries is that they are only named "Martin Beck" mysteries out of convenience. He's the highest ranking policeman in Sjowall and Wahloo's Stockholm Homicide Division, and a couple of the early books tended to focus on him, but as the series goes on the books can be about any of the men who work with Beck.
The Laughing Policeman revolves around two of the detectives: Lennart Kollberg and Åke Stenström. In fact, the central mystery of the book is the shooting of Stenström and seven others on a double decker bus on the edge of Stockholm and Skåne. No one has any idea what Stenström is doing on the bus, and the hunt for a mass murderer in 1968 Sweden is all a bit surreal to the detectives who expect that kind of thing in Vietnam war torn USA, but not late-sixties Sweden.
The investigation (refreshingly bereft of the "cop killer" chest beating we've come to expect from our police procedurals) digs deep into the life of Stenström, trying to figure out what he is doing and why he is on that bus. We meet his girlfriend and future cop Åsa Torell, we discover their sexual proclivities, Stenström's love of guns, and his lofty ambitions.
It is Kollberg who does most of the work on this front, befriending Åsa Torell after Stenström's death and going so far as to invite her to stay with him, his wife, Gun, and their baby (only one at this point) for a while. We discover much more about Kollberg's Socialist politics, his disdain for guns, his and Gun's sexual proclivities, and that he is a damn good detective. No wonder he and Beck get along so well.
The Kollberg and Stenström stuff is exactly the kind of stuff I love. Getting to know characters in the midst of whatever it is they are supposed to be doing. But what Kollberg is supposed to be doing, along with Beck and Melander, Larsson and Rönn, is finding a mass murderer. And that part of the story is as satisfying as it can possibly be. If you love mystery novels, and if you're even mildly interested in Swedish crime fiction, you will love this book. I did. (less)
I am a big fan of multi-multi-part series. Series that follow the same character(s) for eight, nine, ten or even dozens of books have an ability to pl...moreI am a big fan of multi-multi-part series. Series that follow the same character(s) for eight, nine, ten or even dozens of books have an ability to play with characters and let them grow and breathe that one shots or even trilogies don't.
The best, like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey Maturin Series, do such a fine job that their characters become members of the family. People you know intimately and love despite all their flaws. The worst, like most of the Fantasy and Sci-Fi series that have multiple authors, remain a fascinating way to examine how different authors present their different takes on the characters they're writing about. They're often worth reading despite the contradictions and lapses in authorial judgement.
The mystery genre is probably the most prolific producer of multi-volume sets -- especially when it comes to the police procedural. It makes perfect sense to follow a cop or forensic examiner or whatever else over the length of his/her career, and their stories have the easy crime hooks that land our attention. Fans of crime novels all have a favourite detective -- mine is Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander (I am setting aside Mr. Holmes for this discussion) -- and we all have plenty that do nothing for us. But the one thing that can be said for all the "big" characters of the genre, whatever the skill of their creators, is that the more books that are written about them, the more they come to life.
This is, of course, also true of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's exceptional Martin Beck series -- only more so.
Beck and his colleagues -- Kollberg, Melander, Larrson, Rönn -- exist in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's sixties Sweden with an ease that seems entirely unreasonable. The Beck books are short (at least the three I've read so far), yet these characters, in tiny, almost imperceptible ways, achieve depths that other characters can't and don't. They don't seem like characters anymore. They feel real, as though these books are a chronicle of men who once existed.
Perhaps this has most to do with a peculiarity of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's books that popped up in The Man on the Balcony. It struck me that there books are unique in one very important way. Unlike every other multi-part series I've ever read -- and there've been quite a few -- the Martin Beck books are not really multiple parts. Sjöwall and Wahlöö weren't writing ten Martin Beck stories, they were writing ONE Martin Beck story, and each "part" was really just a chapter in the greater whole.
That, more than anything else, allows Sjöwall and Wahlöö to breathe life into their policemen. References in The Man on the Balcony to the first part of their story, Roseanna, aren't simple reminders of some action that happened in the past, they are experiences that shaped their characters' personalities and altered the way the men are now reacting and behaving. Everything about these men is built as if they are real. Not just characters on a page, but men whom Sjöwall and Wahlöö can bring into existence through sheer force of will.
It's no wonder this series is seen as a seminal work of the genre. Its influence should be tremendous for anyone writing about cops. Hell, I don't write about cops, and its already influencing me. (less)
This is a story about victims. Not about being a victim, or the modes of victimization and self-victimization, but a story about victims moving throug...moreThis is a story about victims. Not about being a victim, or the modes of victimization and self-victimization, but a story about victims moving through lives that have victimized them.
Or maybe it is about loss.
There is a mother who lost her son twenty years before and descended into alcoholism, deep depression and a loss of society.
There is a grand/father who lost his grandson and most of those he's cared about in his life -- simply through the movement of time -- who's never had the love of the daughters he loves, who needs closure and a chance to heal himself and those he's leaving behind.
There is a man who lost his father to an act of violence -- terrible on one hand, misunderstood on the other -- who lives a lonely existence on the alvar, being without really being.
There is a girl who loses the only one she ever loved, and she never even had a chance to tell him; there is a mother who lost all her sons; there is a man who lost his self-respect and his health; there is a family who lost their cohesion; there are two boys and an old man and a drunk man and an exiled man and a police man and two soldiers who lost their lives. There is deep loss in Echoes from the Dead on the Swedish isle of Öland; it is an island of victims.
And there is another person to consider. He killed some of those who lost their lives, or was the subject of others' losses. His actions rippled out to catalyze new actions, which created more victims. But he was as much a victim as everyone else. A man-child who never matured, a boy who wanted to be respected and be good and was at times, a boy-man who couldn't control his violence but was able to rationalize it, a lost heart who just wanted to be home with his mother. He was a victim too. And Johan Theorin lets him be exactly what he is, letting us care for him if we want, without passing any authorial judgement, simply letting him exist amongst all those his life effected and affected.
Beautifully done. Again I find myself wishing I could read Swedish. I bet this is even better in its original form. Someday I will. (less)
I could hear the cigarettes and bourbon tearing apart narrator Tom Weiner's vocal chords as I listened to his reading of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke,...moreI could hear the cigarettes and bourbon tearing apart narrator Tom Weiner's vocal chords as I listened to his reading of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Weiner's voice adds aural texture to a book overflowing with atmospheric texture; he compliments the Martin Beck tale perfectly with his slurry gravelly voice.
And that's seems important to me here in a way that it doesn't in all audiobooks. I think it is because of how important this series is to its genre.
Mankell's debt is easily traceable. His Kurt Wallander novel, The Dogs of Riga, is a direct descendent of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. Wallander spends his time in Riga, Latvia, at the height of the Cold War, investigating a murder, just as Martin Beck spends his time in Budapest, Hungry investigating a man's disappearance. The similarities are such that they feel like companion pieces, pieces meant to be read together as a way to consider the same tale from the perspectives of different eras.
But I discovered a potential link of inspiration that surprised me (and I'd love to have an admission for this from the author himself -- just to satisfy my curiosity). I am willing to bet that China Miéville read The Man Who Went Up in Smoke when he was gearing up to write The City and the City. In a much simpler form, the tale of Tyador Borlú's search for the killer of Mahalia Geary is present here. But the most interesting link is the way Beck moves between the cities that are Budapest. It is a city and a city, and that idea is playing on the edges of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.
These connections and those who've been inspired by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahloo don't really matter for too many of us. What does matter is that these are some seriously satisfying mysteries. Must reading (or listening) for any serious fan of the police procedural.(less)
There's something to be said for knowing the answer to a mystery while you're reading a mystery. I watched the first season of Wallander, of which One...moreThere's something to be said for knowing the answer to a mystery while you're reading a mystery. I watched the first season of Wallander, of which One Step Behind was the last episode, before ever cracking a Wallander book, yet it didn't hurt my experience reading the book. Henning Mankell did that quite well on his own (but more on that later).
When the book opened, and Wallander's colleague, Svedberg, was found murdered in his flat, I was thrilled with knowing who the killer was and how the killer was related to his/her past and future victims. The myriad clues that Wallander, Höglund and Martinsson were missing were clear to me in a way they wouldn't have been if I was reading this without prior knowledge (though I am quite observant in a literary-Sherlock way); I had no investigative work to do, so I could just pick up the clues and move along.
What this allowed me to do, in turn, was pay more attention to the characters. I was able to settle into the rhythms of their work, their relationships and their problems, which pulled me deep into the story at a rapid rate. It started well. I was enjoying One Step Behind more than any other Wallander I've read, then my enjoyment began to fall apart in the most unexpected ways.
I should mention, here, that while I was reading this Wallander I was listening (for the second time) to Sjowall & Wahloo's The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. I've found the Martin Beck books to be superior to the Wallander books, so I shouldn't be surprised that One Step Behind couldn't match its forebear, but the area in which Mankell's creation suffered most in comparison was the attitude towards the killer. Sjowall & Wahloo were not believers in the pure madman, the evil killer for the sake of evil -- nor am I. So Mankell's decision to cast his One Step Behind killer with that mould, to let a dust mote debate float throughout the book about the nature of the killer, then end it with the killer being mad and evil, left me disappointed.
Not nearly so disappointed, however, as I was at Wallander's personal turn as Dirty Harry. He was every bad Hollywood cop cliché: he was the unorthodox but effective copper; he was the cop obsessed with catching his (wo)man, all else be damned; he was self-righteous and full of venom for everyone he judged; he took unnecessary risks, put others in danger, fought off meddling bureaucrats, broke laws, all in the name of justice. I had come to expect more from Kurt Wallander in Henning Mankell's books, and the early stages of One Step Behind had promised that I would get what I expected. But no. All I got was disappointment.
What started as potentially my most favourite Wallander book turned into my least. I think I will watch the BBC version again soon (I've not seen it in a long time), and see if Wallander is as Hollywood there as he is in Mankell's pages. I sure hope not. (less)
The Swedish-noir (Swedish-svart?) family tree runs just so: Martin Beck (grandfather) → Kurt Wallander (father) → Mikael Blomkvist (son).
Now I admit t...moreThe Swedish-noir (Swedish-svart?) family tree runs just so: Martin Beck (grandfather) → Kurt Wallander (father) → Mikael Blomkvist (son).
Now I admit that my exposure to this family is limited by my North Americanism, by the translations that filter their way across the Atlantic, by the culture(s) that make(s) these works popular, but even if there are branches and roots of the tree that I can't see, the relationship between these stories is undeniable.
So it feels to me like Martin Beck -- more specifically the first novel starring Martin Beck, RoseAnna -- is the progenitor of the big protagonists that came after.
Martin Beck, you see, is the sixties' Kurt Wallander. He is consumed by his job, he is deep in a failing marriage, he is constantly depressed, almost always in ill health, yet there is something admirable in his doggedness. And in the version of RoseAnna that I listened to, Henning Mankell admits his debt to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö, acknowledging that the writing team's split from classic "English" mystery, their committment to the banality of police work, their need for investigatory truth, deeply influenced his own work.
Making that first connection is easy, the next much less so.
On the surface, Mikael Blomqvist seems a bit harder to link to his father and grandfather. He is flamboyant (for a Swede), where they are moderate and restrained. He is an active lefty, while they are decidely more conservative. He is a hopeful investigative reporter, while they are jaded old school cops. He shares the spotlight with Lisbeth Salander, while they are clearly the protagonists of their tales.
It's not the protagonists who hate women (at least not enough to destroy them), but the criminals they deal with. It is a preoccupation for all the authors, and it makes me wonder, when one reads these books, what the attitude towards women really is in Sweden. Can it be as bad as these books suggest?
Whatever the case, these books are compelling reads for anyone interested in the mystery genre. Don't be fooled, though, by those who would have you believe that Steig Larsson is some sort of genre creating genius who gave rise to Swedish crime fiction out a vaccuum. He's the most recent, and most popular, of a healthy and strong family tree. And this book, RoseAnna is one of the healthiest and most gripping of its roots.(less)
I am confident that Stieg Larsson has a reason for this, but Lisbeth Salander is not much of a heroine. Let's list her transgressions from The Girl Wh...moreI am confident that Stieg Larsson has a reason for this, but Lisbeth Salander is not much of a heroine. Let's list her transgressions from The Girl Who Played With Fire (and these will be deliberately out of context):
1. She forces herself on a 16 year old boy in Granada. 2. She kills a man on the beach during a hurricane. 3. She shuts out Blomkvist for a very long time for a perceived slight, giving him no explanation. 4. She fails to take or show the necessary care with her ex-guardian after his stroke. 5. She alienates everyone else who cares about her. 6. She lives off billions that she stole. 7. She invades the apartment of her "guardian" and threatens his life in the middle of the night. 8. She endangers the lives of friends and innocents. 9. She very nearly burned her father to death when she was a teenager. 10. She pulls a gun on the owner of a car rental agency and shuts him in a broom closet to control him. 11. She commits multiple computer violations, including the hacking of government computers. 12. She carries and uses illegal weapons. 13. She is genuinely ultraviolent. 14. She shoots a man in the foot after macing his eyes, and she tasers another in the testicles. 15. She steals a motorcycle. 16. She chops her father's knee and skull with an axe. 17. She is vengeful in a way that makes Edmond Dantès look like a sissy.
Let's face it, Lisbeth is more than a little bit nasty. And taken a step further, it is safe to say that she is not particularly likable. She is cold, calculating, emotionally irrational, mean, detached, abrasive, unapproachable, unfriendly, selfish, mercenary, vengeful, and more than a few other things most of us would classify as unlikable.
Out of context, Lisbeth Salander is the kind of person who most people would be more than happy to see locked up forever. And if all we had to go on were the reports of newspapers and descriptions of trials, we'd all see it as a failure of the "justice system" if she went free.
Yet we cheer for her in the Millenium Trilogy; we can't seem to help ourselves. And therein lies what Stieg Larsson is trying to tell us with his challenging protagonist -- context is everything.
Larsson isn't simply writing a compelling series of thrillers (and I haven't been so locked into a book, as I was with GWPWF, for a very long time). He isn't simply fishing for a film deal. He isn't just sitting down to write a vapid bestseller. I'd even go so far as to say that Stieg Larsson is not a hack. Nowhere near. He is criticizing the very efficacy of what we so proudly call the "rule of law."
Larsson is suggesting that the "rule of law" fails because it has no room for context. It deals in absolutes (unless you're one of the super-rich or super-influential), and it doesn't give a damn whether you perceived a threat before you lit someone on fire; it doesn't care whether the sixteen year old you're having sex with is mature, in love with you and is totally willing; it doesn't care that you stole the car or killed someone to save a life; it doesn't care that you withheld evidence from the police to protect yourself or someone you love; it doesn't care that you hacked into computers for altruistic reasons; it doesn't care that you were bred to ultraviolence through nature and nurture; it doesn't care about you and it doesn't care about context. It just doesn't care, and because it doesn't care Larsson suggests that we should have a healthy disdain for the "rule of law" and recognize its terrible shortcomings because it is the structure we have to live with whether we like it or not.
Yet with all this, The Girl Who Played With Fire is -- most importantly -- a cracking read. It is fast paced, cinematic in its noirishness, full of suspense, has a genuine twist or two (one of which actually took me by surprise), a cast of characters it is almost impossible not to love and hate (as the mood takes you) -- even thought they are all rather static -- and it ends with a cliff hanger of the first order (I am guessing this is a problem for some readers, but I am a fan of the cliff hanger).
What a shame Stieg Larsson passed from us so soon. I could have read his books for the rest of my life. (less)
I happened to be reading this with my daughter at the same time I was rereading the Culture novel Consider Phlebas and I couldn't keep the two separat...moreI happened to be reading this with my daughter at the same time I was rereading the Culture novel Consider Phlebas and I couldn't keep the two separate. Pippi just seems like the perfect member of the Culture, decent, headstrong, hedonistic, in love with her post-scarcity living, and a bit too flaky for her own good. All that led to this:
9. Pippi Goes Aboard*
Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim's Daughter Longstocking closed the door to her cabin aboard General Contact Unit Villa Villekulla and hung her red ribbon from her custom door stud for the last time; then she lifted the horse drone down from its pedestal. It was completely capable of using its anti-gravity forcefield, but it preferred to have Pippi set him down –- so for the last time she lifted him down off his pedestal. The primate shaped drone, Mr. Nilsson, already hovered over her shoulder, projecting simultaneous auras of importance and annoyance. He understood that something special was going to happen.
“Well, I guess that’s all,” said Pippi.
“Tommy and Annika nodded. “Yes, I guess it is.”
“It’s still early,” said Pippi. “Let’s walk; that will take longer.”
Tommy and Annika nodded again, but they didn’t say anything. Then they started walking toward the town, toward the harbour, toward the Cliff Class Superlifter Hoptoad. The horse, forced to use his anti-gravity now, floated along slowly behind them.
Pippi glanced over her shoulder at her cabin door. “Nice little place,” she said. “No bugs, clean and comfortable, and that’s probably more than you can say about the hovels where I’ll be living in the future.”
Tommy and Annika said nothing.
“If there are an awful lot of bugs in my Drezen hovel,” continued Pippi, “I’ll train them and keep them in a box and play Run, Medjel, Run with them at night. I’ll tie little bows around their antennae, and the two most faithful and affectionate I will call Tommy and Annika, and they shall sleep with me at night.”
Not even this could make Tommy and Annika more talkative.
“What on earth is wrong with you? asked Pippi irritably. I tell you it is dangerous to keep quiet too long. Tongues dry up if you don’t use them. On Vavatch I once knew an Eater who never said a word. And once when he wanted to say to me, ‘You look yummy, dear Pippi, come let me eat you,’ he opened his mouth and can you guess what he said? First he made some horrible faces, for his teeth had fallen out and he needed metal ones, and then a sound came out: ‘U buy uye muy.’ I looked in his mouth, and, imagine! there lay his tongue like a little wilted leaf, and as long as he lived, which wasn’t long I admit, that Eater could never say anything but ‘U buy uye muy.’ It would be awful if the same thing should happen to you. Let me see if you can say this better than the Eater did: ‘You look yummy, dear Pippi, come let me eat you,’ or at least, ‘have a nice mission, Pippi.’ Go on, try it.”
“Have a nice mission, dear Pippi, and thanks for your visit,” said Tommy and Annika obediently.
There was the Smallbay; there lay the Hoptoad. Captain Efraim stood near the ramp, shouting his commands, the drones hovered back and forth to make everything ready for departure. All the people on the GCU had crowded into the Smallbay to wave good-by to Pippi, and here she came with Tommy and Annika and the horse and Mr. Nilsson.
Pippi nodded and smiled to the left and the right. Then she took up the horse, who obediently shut down his force fields and carried him up the ramp. The poor old drone cast a suspicious aura, for old drones don’t care very much for Contact missions.
“Well, here you are, my beloved operative!” called Captain Efraim. He folded her in his arms, and they hugged each other with all the power that their hyperactive adrenals could muster. They nearly cracked each other’s ribs -- captain and operative -- and it took a moment to catch their breath. That was when Pippi noticed Annika’s tears and Tommy’s frustration.
Pippi came running down the ramp and rushed over to them. She took their hands in hers. “Ten minutes left,” she said.
Then Annika threw herself against the force field of Mr. Nilsson and cried as if her heart would break. Tommy clenched his teeth and looked murderous. He would not cry for anything.
All the people of GCU Villa Villekulla gathered around Pippi. They took out their bird whistles, manufactured by the GCU for the occasion, and blew the farewell tune the GCU had composed for her. It sounded sad beyond words, for it was a very, very mournful tune. Annika was crying so hard she could hardly catch her breath, and Tommy was so tense he had to think to engage his endorphins just so he could calm down.
The people crowded in from all directions to say good-by to Pippi. She raised her hand and asked them to be quiet.
“Hereafter,” she said, “I’ll only have little Drezeni savages to play with. I don’t know how we will amuse ourselves; perhaps I’ll actually have do some work. Perhaps I will teach them some pluttification. I suppose we’ll manage to pass the time some way.” Pippi paused. Both Tommy and Annika felt that they hated those Drezeni Pippi would know in the future.
“But,” continued Pippi, “Perhaps a day will come when their planet is a part of the Culture, a long dreary century from now, when I will have taught them all to pluttify, and then I could come back here, to the GCU Villa Villekulla and everything can be just like it is now all over again.”
The people blew a still sadder tune on their bird whistles.
“Pippi, it’s time to come aboard,” called Captain Efraim.
“Aye, aye, captain,” called Pippi. She turned to Tommy and Annika. She looked at them.
“Close the ramp, Fridolf” cried Captain Efraim to his knife-missile. Fridolf did. The Hoptoad was ready for her mission of Contact.
Then -- “No, Captain Efraim,” cried Pippi, watching the crowd in the Smallbay -- watching Tommy and Annika -- through the viewscreen, “I can’t do it, I just can’t bear to do it!”
“What is it you can’t bear to do?” asked Captain Efraim.
“I can’t bear to see anyone in the Culture crying and being sorry on account of me -- least of all Tommy and Annika. Put down the ramp again. I’m staying on Villa Villekulla.
Captain Efraim stood silent for a minute. “Do as you like,” he said at last. “You always have done that. And so you should too.”
Pippi nodded. “Yes, I’ve always done that,” she said quietly. “You know, Papa, Efraim? I think it’s best to live on a decent GCU and not disrupt my comfort on some stinky, backwater planet -- don’t you think so too?”
“You’re right, as always, Pippi,” answered Captain Efraim. “It is certain that you live a more ordered life on GCU Villa Villekulla, and that is probably best for you. Fridolf anticipated your decision, and your replacement is already onboard.”
“Just so then,” said Pippi. “It’s surely best for me to live and orderly life, especially since I can’t order it myself.
Pippi said goodbye to the drones on the Hoptoad and hugged Captain Efraim once more. Then she lifted her still grounded horse and carried him down the ramp. Mr. Nilsson floated along beside her with a content aura. The Hoptoad was cut off by a force field generated by the GCU and vented out of the Smallbay, leaving Pippi with the people of Villa Villekulla where she would always be happy.
The Unit is billed as a Sci-Fi dystopia. If so, it's just barely so. It's speculative with a lower case "s" but little more than that.
Told in the firs...moreThe Unit is billed as a Sci-Fi dystopia. If so, it's just barely so. It's speculative with a lower case "s" but little more than that.
Told in the first person by Dorrit Weger -- the most insipid, pathetic, annoying narrator I've read in years -- The Unit is about a future in Sweden where old "dispensable" people (women at fifty and men at sixty who have no families or partners who've avowed love for them), are harvested for their organs and made subjects for medical testing while living the cushiest of lives in a utopian Organ Bank Unit, complete with live and movie theatres, art gallery, library, great food, lovely little shops, fantastic fitness facilities, and a gorgeous park straight out of a Monet painting.
And they live there charmed little end of life until their final donation when the surgeons take their senior citizen heart or pancreas or liver or some other big organ and give it to someone who's needed in the outside world, when, of course, they die. Boo hoo. I am so sad for them. Or I'm supposed to be, but Ninni Holqvist managed to strip me of pity and just fill me full of "Suck it up!"
And that's just my emotional response.
How on earth are senior citizen organs viable options -- on a large scale -- for transplant into youths? Moreover, Holmqvist goes to great lengths to constantly remind us that tobacco and alcohol are not allowed in the Unit because of the deleterious effects they have on the residents bodies, but apparently experimental radiation therapies, hormone therapies and psychotropic drugs have no such impacts, since subjects give organs even after their own health fails because of the testing. What?!
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Holmqvist's political and philosophical concepts are poorly executed. Her male characters are poorly drawn. Her pacing is just plain poor. There is no suspense, no tension and nothing compelling. But there are plenty of cheese sandwiches and Dorrit's constant obsession with the dog she left behind to keep us going.
I almost gave this book a second star, though, because the ending was precisely what Dorrit would have done in the situation in which she found herself. But nope. Even the two decent sex scenes couldn't overcome my disdain. I hated this book too much for that or that. So one star.
I hope Ms. Holmqvist is one of those pretentious "literary" authors who deny that their work is Science Fiction because I expect my Sci-Fi to be good, and I'd hate to have her sully my favourite genre with the presence of this book. Steer clear, my friends, steer clear. (less)
There are many book related things I could say about the fourth Wallander installment -- The Man Who Smiled. Stuff about the excellent introduction of...moreThere are many book related things I could say about the fourth Wallander installment -- The Man Who Smiled. Stuff about the excellent introduction of Ann-Britt Höglund and Wallander as a character and the breakneck pace and the way the BBC adaptation of this differed in good ways and bad. But reading this particular book led me to a realization, and I'd rather talk about that.
I have often wondered why, even though I am compelled to read detective fiction -- which at its best still tends to see the world as more black and white than I -- the genre fills me with anxiety and sadness. The obvious answer is because "terrible things" happen in these books, and those things make me feel bad. But that answer has never flown for me, and I rejected it the very first time I wondered why.
I know the answer now, and it came to me in the final discussion between Dr. Harderberg and Kurt Wallander:
"You have to understand that [selling human organs] is but a tiny part of my activities. It's negligible, marginal. But it's what I do, Inspector Wallander. I buy and sell. I'm an actor on the stage govered by market forces. I never miss an opportunity, no matter how small and insignificant it is."
Human life is insignificant, then, Wallander thought. That's the premise on which Harderberg's whole existence is based.
And therein lies my anxiety and sadness. I myself believe that "human life is insignificant." Or rather that human life is no more or less significant that any other life, from microscopic bacteria to the smallest plant or insect to the largest and most complex of mammals. All of it. The whole shebang. And that these books I read situate what I believe in the black side of their balck & white outlook.
Every killer I've ever seen in every detective/mystery/serial killer book I've ever read is written to believe the same thing (The Man Who Smiled just happened to make it explicit in a revealing way), suggesting that people who believe that humanity is insignificant must be "bastards," must be traitors to humanity, must be, in some way, depraved. That stresses me out. And it is just not true.
That belief in human insignificance or the lack of human superiority does not equal evil or wickedness or wrong. Of course it can, but so can anything. The truth is that people who believe these things are just as likely to love all life. They are capable of great good too.
But I am faced daily by the fact that I am in an extreme minority. It is harder for people to understand what I believe than it is for the religious majority to understand how the atheist minority can behave morally without the dictates of a god (and that is a pretty serious misunderstanding, so imagine my despair).
When I read a book by an author like Henning Mankell, I am faced with what makes me a societal outsider in the starkest of terms.
Perhaps I should stop depressing and stressing myself, stop reading these stories, but I am compelled to continue reading them because I must remain engaged with the humanist majority, keeping the debate alive in my head. If I don't, I'll tuck my head in my shell and desiccate in the desert heat.(less)
I approached The White Lioness tentatively, afraid that I wouldn't like it and that it could very well mark the end of my appreciation for the written...moreI approached The White Lioness tentatively, afraid that I wouldn't like it and that it could very well mark the end of my appreciation for the written Wallander.
Faceless Killers was a somewhat uninspired though compelling murder mystery. It was straightforward, and exactly what one would expect from the story of a taciturn Swedish cop in quiet Ystad. Coupled with the BBC movies, it was more than enough to make me want to proceed in the series. Dogs of Riga, however, was something else entirely. It wasn't bad, but it was thoroughly unexpected. It was a political thriller in the guise of a cop mystery, and Kurt Wallander's foray into Latvia felt too forced and uncharacteristic (despite the book's early place in the Wallander chronology) to rise above Mankell's personal, political agenda. It wasn't bad, but it made me wary of what might come next.
Once I saw the map of South Africa and the disclaimer at the beginning of The White Lioness, I was even more frightened: "Since The White Lioness was first published in 1993, some towns and areas in South Africa have been renamed. The names in use then have been retained here.”
“Uh-oh,” I thought, “Another Dogs of Riga. And to some extent it was, but in a more masterful and confident way. Mankell does with The White Lioness what he probably should have done with its predecessor. He tells two parallel stories: one is a tense murder mystery starring Kurt Wallander at his unpredictable best; the other is a suspenseful political thriller set in de Klerk’s Africa at the tail end of apartheid. This time, however, he doesn’t try to force Wallander into a foreign trip. He doesn’t embroil Wallander in a Jason Bourne style international action story. Instead, he lets these two stories bleed into each other in their separate countries, showing us how the actions of men and women in Sweden and South Africa simultaneously and unwittingly affect the other.
The two stories are constantly and necessarily tied together, but few of the important characters ever meet.
It is an impressive balancing act, and it ratchets up the suspense to a level I’ve never before experienced in a Wallander book. This was the first one I couldn’t put down, and I didn’t want it to end. It’s a real shame that The White Lioness is so rooted in its time and place. An assassination attempt on Nelson Mandela would not have the same implications today, which means that this story, barring an attempted big screen period piece, will never make it to the screen, at least not with Branagh as Wallander.
How I would love to see it, though. This really is an excellent Wallander tale. The Dogs of Riga have been put to rest.(less)
There was a point in The Fifth Woman where I thought, "Christ, Wallander is getting preachy. I wonder if Mankell realizes it?" And then a couple of ch...moreThere was a point in The Fifth Woman where I thought, "Christ, Wallander is getting preachy. I wonder if Mankell realizes it?" And then a couple of chapters later it came clear that Mankell did realize what was happening to his Ystad Detective because those closest to Wallander comment on his fondness for lecturing everyone around him about the ills of Sweden and his philosophy of police work. They then prod him to become a lecturer at the local police academy.
A literary snap of the fingers and Mankell makes this new trait of Wallander an acceptable part of his character. At least for me.
As for the rest of the book, it's not the strongest in the series, but it is still a page turner. I powered on late into the night to finish, and it was definitely full of suspence. Wallander himself remains one of my favourite literary detectives. I admire his doggedness, but I love him because of his emotion. He feels, sometimes too intensely to be healthy, but he feels everything, and it dooms him to loneliness. He cannot express his emotions, you see, and so he buries them and works. Works. Works. Works. I find myself caring more about him the longer the series goes on and wanting something good for him in his life. I don't think he's going to get it.
If you're new to Wallander, don't start here because he's changing, and you need to know him before to enjoy the changes. But you should enjoy this book just fine when you reach it.
later: I hadn't seen the sixth episode of the BBC Wallander until last night; I'd been saving it after I finished the book. Since I finished it yesterday I thought I should give it a watch, and it is the first time I was disappointed.
Both the mystery and the emotional core of Kurt Wallander were too distant from Mankell's book. Kurt, in the book, begins to resolve his relationship with his father, taking a week long vacation with his father in Rome, so when his father passes away there is no deep pool of despair for Kurt to dive into. But he dives intot that pool in the book, wandering around like a Basset Hound who can't find his owner.
The mystery gets short shrift too because of Wallander's whiny broodiness. We get none of the killer's POV, which offered some interesting moments in the book. We get too little of the crimes of the abusive men, the victims of the killer, and the crimes we do get are altered in ways that lessen their severity and make the men much easier to feel sorry for.
These aren't the only changes either. Anna-Britt isn't shot, it's Kurt who takes the bullet. Baiba isn't the one Kurt loves, it is a witness for the case named Vanja. His relationship with Linda is short changed. It's just plain bad.
I have serious concerns about this show going forward, and I am bummed because I was looking forward to series 3 becoming available in North America. Huge bummer for me. (less)
As much as I like Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and I like him quite a lot, my feelings weren’t enough to overcome my disappointment with The Dogs...moreAs much as I like Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and I like him quite a lot, my feelings weren’t enough to overcome my disappointment with The Dogs of Riga.
Mankell admits in the afterword that “The revolutionary events that took place in the Baltic countries during the last year  were the basis ...” of his second Wallander story, and it is very much a case of an author writing with an idea rather than his characters in mind.
Mankell didn’t need to make this tale a Wallander tale, nor should he have. Having Wallander jaunting off to Riga, Latvia on some end-of-the-Cold-War spy adventure was unjustified. Any character would do to tell the tale because it was the tale that was important. A a new character would have been a much better choice than the cop from Ystad.
Kurt Wallander is a small town, apolitical, regional cop who is more concerned with his daughter’s depression, his father’s mounting dementia and his growing belly than anything he’s expected to care about in The Dogs of Riga. Mankell does remember enough about the man he is creating to allow Wallander to maintain the integral parts of his personality, but that only leaves Mankell with the flimsiest of excuses – a silly and totally unbelievable love – for Wallander’s uncharacteristic actions, and it isn’t enough to be convincing.
I admit, however, that I may not have felt this way if I had read this book when it came out in the early nineties. This is only the second book in the series, and back then there was only Faceless Killers around to tell us who Kurt Wallander was. But I am reading the series now, nearly twenty years later, and I have Kurt Wallander television shows and Linda Wallander books and a pretty serious body of popular culture manifestations to provide me with expectations that a timely reader of The Dogs of Riga wouldn’t have had.
I imagine I’d have liked the book better back then. It is well-paced, suspenseful, mildly prophetic, and Wallander is his usual, surprisingly likable self, but time doesn’t do The Dogs of Riga any favours. I just hope it is better onscreen because they say it will be part of the third series of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander.(less)
I remember a discussion I had years ago with a friend of mine about Jonathon Demme's film version of The Silence of the Lambs. We were both annoyed by...moreI remember a discussion I had years ago with a friend of mine about Jonathon Demme's film version of The Silence of the Lambs. We were both annoyed by the pacing of the film and joked that it was really the story of an FBI agent driving her car, with some dialogue thrown in to liven things up.
I felt a bit that way reading Faceless Killers, the first Wallander book by Henning Mankell. I don't know if it was only this first Wallander mystery (it's the first I've read too) or if it is a common theme in Mankell's work, but the writing is obsessed with time. Time of day, seasons, days of the week, months, we are constantly being reminded when we are in the story. But that's not such a bad thing.
What Mankell achieves with his use of time, whether he meant to or not, is an expression of what I imagine is the reality of police work: waiting, waiting and more waiting.
We are so used to the slick, Hollywood version of crime stories that we expect everything to come together quickly, cleanly, logically. We expect the perpetrators to make big mistakes, the crime scene investigators to find some smoking DNA, the Detectives to put all the pieces together as if by magic. That's not how it really happens, though, and investigations take time. It makes for some boring bits in the book, but boring in a way that reflects the police lifestyle.
As for the main character, Wallander spends more time in Faceless Killers worrying about his ailing father, obsessing over his failed marriage, and feeling generally sorry for himself than he does thinking about the case. Yet he still manages to work on the case with the tenacity of a bedbug, and six months after the killings, with nothing but perseverance, he gets the break in the case he needs and finds the killers.
Faceless Killers isn't a classic "whodunnit" style mystery; there's no way for a reader to figure out who the killers are. There are no clues we can follow, no hints, but there are no real red herrings either because, in the end, the murders and police work are not what the book is about. It is about the life of Kurt Wallander and everything else, including the mystery, is just a part of his life.
I like Wallander (probably because I watched the BBC version on Masterpiece Mystery and loved Kenneth Branagh as Wallander), so I'll probably read another couple of stories when I am bored. But if you don't like dreary, self-pitying, middle-aged, divorced men, the Wallander books probably aren't for you.(less)
Sometimes when you discover a new author -- even when your first exposure to their books doesn't blow your mind -- you see the promise of something fa...moreSometimes when you discover a new author -- even when your first exposure to their books doesn't blow your mind -- you see the promise of something fantastic, and you keep reading.
I've been reading many authors with that goal in mind: Ian Rankin (for the last few months) and Stephen King (for most of my life, with perpetual disappointment) and Nick Hornby (for a decade and a half) and Philip Palmer (for a couple of years) and Miriam Toews (since last summer). Only one of those authors has delivered the fantastic, but my love for Arsenal keeps Hornby on the "potential list" because I was predisposed to loving Fever Pitch, and it hardly seems fair to give his writing credit for such an easy victory.
Henning Mankell was on that list until today. I've enjoyed his books, some of them quite a bit, and I have become a big fan of Kurt Wallander (played brilliantly on the BBC by Kenneth Branagh*), Mankell's brooding, anti-social, middle aged, tenacious, Ystad cop. But Mankell finally delivered on the promise he made me in his first Wallander book, Faceless Killers.
Sidetracked is the first fantastic Wallander I've read. It does everything Mankell always does, only better. It's a perfect mixture of Wallander's personal life (his always complicated relationships with his daughter, Linda, his Father, his long-distance, Latvian lover, Baiba, and his partner, Ann-Britt Hoglund), his professional life (this time he's searching for a serial killer who scalps and kills his victims with an axe), and his interior life (full of nostalgia, anxiety, pain, guilt and doubt). Wallander feels, this time, like he's not just a character on the page, but a real cop, a real person, living somewhere out there in the world at this very moment. It's rare for me to find a character I believe in so thoroughly, and it's exciting when it happens.
I had a hard time putting this book down. Honestly. And if it hadn't been for life, I would have read it in one bleary-eyed sitting. Even so, I stayed up late every night for three nights so that I could finish. I loved this book. I wonder if any of those remaining in the series will deliver the same satisfaction. No matter. One book in my personal fantastic range is enough. Mankell has solidified me as his fan.
Long live Wallander.
*Sorry. I had to shamelessly plug old Ken, as I do in every Wallander book review.(less)
1. It's misogynistic. 2. It's packed with cliché. 3. It's too convoluted. 4. It's too disturbing. 5. Lisbeth wasn't autistic enough or was foolishly autistic. 6. There were too many red herrings, and the damn Nazi red herring didn't have the usual payoff. 7. Too/Two many plots. 8. Too hard on Leviticus.
I will answer these in a moment, but first I must declare that I am an unrepentant fan of this book. This is one of the rare times when I long for goodreads to have half grades, because I would love to give this 4.5. I can't give it a full 5, though, because I sense Mr. Larsson's series is going to grow in his last two books.
And now...back to the top eight complaints:
1. Perhaps, but how can a book whose original Swedish title is "Men Who Hate Women" avoid misogyny? It can't. But at least the misogyny present is a comment on misogyny. Larsson isn't being misogynist. He's attacking misogyny.
Moreover, our hero, Mikael Blomkvist, is not one of the men who hate women. He is a pretty good guy, actually; in fact, he's one of the rare guys I would actually categorize as a "good guy" in most modern literature. Sure...he's a bad Dad. Sure...he has a failed marriage and many sexual relationships. Sure...he makes some decisions that challenge his ethics. But he remains a "good guy." He tries to do well in an ugly world. He never succumbs to cynicism. And he genuinely cares about all the people in his life. Male and female.
And it's not like Berger and Salander are weak women -- far from it. There may be misogyny in Men Who Hate Women, but it is wholly the characters' misogyny -- those who have it -- and not the author's.
2. With apologies to my friend who's first name starts with T: Cliché, smiché! Yes there's some cliché -- maybe plenty of cliché -- but who cares?! Seriously? We're not talking about Proust here. We're talking about a mystery novel, a serial killer who-dunnit. Complaining about cliché in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is like complaining about "pinko sympathies" in The Communist Manifesto.
There's communism in Marx? Really? You think!?
3 & 7. Yep. There's a couple of distinct plots here, but there's a level of verisimilitude to that. Have even our banal lives ever had anything important happen without something else important occurring at the same time? Not mine, and to have multiple incidents happening simultaneously makes sense to me. The search for Harriet Vanger wasn't hampered at all by the Wennerström drama, and vice versa. And to be honest, I loved having a pair of mysteries solved in the same novel.
4. Too disturbing compared to what? It's nowhere near as disturbing as American Psycho, and it's about average as far as the serial killer genre goes. Plus, I think there is a power in the graphic moments of this novel, particularly Lisbeth's vengeance on her guardian. I am not on her side when it comes to this vengeance, but I understand it, and the drive to take vengeance in such a way -- such a human way -- fascinates me. Who'd have thought, besides maybe my friend Manny, that the Swedes have it in them?
5. Perhaps this is true, but at this point I have only read one of the trilogy, and the only person who suggested that Lisbeth was autistic was Mikael, and while he thought she was suffering from Asberger's his guess was only in passing. I can cut the book some slack here. (suspend my disbelief, suspend my disbelief).
6. I was stoked that, for once, the Nazis were a red herring rather than the ultimate, degenerated evil. We all expect the Nazis to be the worst of the worst, so it is refreshing to see them as a deflection instead.
8. Can anyone really be too hard on Leviticus? Ummmmm...nope.
Now, I admit that I might love this novel simply because it is set in Sweden. After all, I do love ABBA, Fredrik Ljungberg, IKEA (my apologies), glögg, Stellan Skarsgård, Max von Sydow, Ingmar Bergman, and Mats Sundin. I looked into emigrating to Sweden but had no excuse, being a resident of Canada with no skills the Swedes were looking for, and I am a fan of Norse Mythology, but I do love Sweden, and I was jazzed by the setting of Larsson's book. All that aside, however, I think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a compelling, entertaining and unabashedly thrilling read.
If you can overlook the eight complaints, or consider them in a different light, you'll like this book too. I promise. (less)