Book review(s): two Swedish murder mysteries

22 08 2016

Another doubled-up book review. There’s not really a connection of any kind between these two books, other than that they’re by two authors who remain influential and who were, in their respective times, at the forefront of the Swedish crime fiction scene.

Per Wahlöö (d. 1975) wrote a series of standalone crime novels, but is probably best known as the co-author (with his partner Maj Sjöwall) of the Martin Beck series of mysteries. Murder on the Thirty-First Floor (Mord på 31:a våningen, 1964, translated by Sarah Death) is one of his standalones.

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Inspector Jensen is directed to investigate an anonymous bomb threat made against the staff of a large publishing company by, it is presumed, a disgruntled former employee. Jensen is told by his superintendent that the investigation must be discreet, thorough, and quick, and the Inspector loses no time in getting to work on the case. But everyone he questions on the matter appears to have something to hide, especially the company’s senior employees.

This book is written in a severe, spare style which threatens to date it. Another aspect that sets it apart from the other Swedish crime novels I’ve read recently is its setting: the story unfolds within a large city that is never identified, in an unnamed country, at some point within (as it was then) the near future. It is, thus, in a sense, a work of science fiction, and indeed there are parallels with some genre works: not, especially, with Asimov’s Lije Baley / R Daneel Olivaw novels (except, I suppose, in the sheer lack of ornamentation to the writing), nor with Larry Niven’s ‘Gil Hamilton’ stories, but quite strongly with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as with lit-dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984. It’s particularly redonent of the Truffaut film of Fahrenheit 451, with its twin themes of (a) societal homogenisation through vapid entertainment and (b) literature as danger.

The prose’s flatness has a distancing effect, and Jensen is so sketchily drawn as not to engage the reader’s empathy to any significant extent. Furthermore, many of the dialogues which unfold during the investigation are quite polemical, to the extent that it does become difficult, in places, to view the work as a genuine mystery story. Nonetheless, it does hang together, and it reaches its destination in good order. I suppose its impact rests, ultimately, on the extent to which the reader is prepared to countenance a future in which one print / media company has such an overwhelming grip on the dissemination of information as to exert effectively complete control over the society in which it is embedded …

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If Murder on the Thirty-First Floor sketches a possible future, The Troubled Man (Den orolige mannen, 2009, translated by Laurie Thompson) details a plausible past.

Henning Mankell (d. 2015) was a prolific writer of crime fiction, children’s novels, plays and screenplays, best known for the series of crime novels featuring Kurt Wallander, a dour and somewhat reclusive detective. Like the Marxist Wahlöö, Mankell’s political beliefs were substantially towards the left, and he took a keen interest in world affairs, actively supporting numerous charities involved in Africa (especially Mozambique); he was also aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 when it was boarded by Israeli military forces. With this personal background, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that The Troubled Man (in which Wallander seeks to solve the disappearance of his daughter Linda’s father-in-law Håkan von Enke, a retired submarine commander who played an active role, in 1982, in the attempted interception of a Soviet submarine in Swedish territorial waters) does carry something of a political flavour. But there’s such a wealth of backstory, and of character interplay, that this story of the aging detective is consistently engaging and well-realised, with episodes of genuine pathos. It’s probably not, though, the ideal book from which to start exploring the Wallander sequence, because it’s set so late in his career.

The story is a complex one, in which Mankell explores not just Håkan’s disappearance but that of Håkan’s wife Louise, as well as Wallander’s failing health, Sweden’s political and social turmoil following the (still unsolved) assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, and the geopolitical difficulties faced by a wealthy country trying to walk a line of ostensible neutrality. Von Enke’s background as a submariner is dealt with in what seems to be very credible detail, and the recurrence of what appear to be minor characters from some of the much earlier Wallander novels gives the book an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ flavour. It’s not a quick read—it certainly takes its time to get to the source of the crime—but it holds together well and it breathes a lot of life into its characters (even the dead ones). Isn’t that what one looks for in crime fiction?

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