Book review: An Event in Autumn, by Henning Mankell

15 05 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer, playwright, and activist best known for his ‘Kurt Wallander’ series of crime novels. I’ve recently reviewed the first of the Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, here.

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An Event in Autumn (Handen, 2013, translated by Laurie Thompson, originally published (in Dutch) as Het Graf, 2004) is a novella set a few years before Wallander’s retirement. It opens when his colleague Malinson, aware of Wallander’s interest in buying a rural property, asks if he would be interested in viewing a house belonging to his wife’s aged uncle who has recently moved into a care home. Wallander inspects the property: it’s distinctly run-down but otherwise seems to be the kind of thing he’s after, and the price is right. The sale doesn’t go ahead, however, because at the close of his inspection Wallander finds something unexpected protruding from the back lawn: a skeletal human hand. The hand bone’s connected to the arm bone, the arm bone’s connected et cetera … An investigation ensues. It transpires that the body’s been in the ground for forty or fifty years.

The pacing and overall tone in this one is rather reminiscent of Jorn Lier Horst’s When It Grows Dark (reviewed here), which is similarly brief and is similarly concerned with the investigation of a crime so long-concealed that very few witnesses remain, though the cynical and middle-aged Wallander is a much grumpier individual than Lier Horst’s keen young William Wisting. As ever, it’s the depth of the curmudgeonly Wallander’s characterisation, and the enveloping minutiae of the repeatedly-thwarted investigation, which convinces. It works well as a story; it would also function quite usefully as an introduction to Mankell, for those who might be put off ploughing straight into one of the longer books. (It’s also of interest for the dozen or so pages of explanatory material at the end, in which Mankell details the story’s origins as a publisher-requested ‘freebie’ to accompany Dutch sales of his crime novels, as well as outlining the origins of Wallander’s character—though this can be skipped over by those merely interested in the fiction, rather than the backstory.)

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Book review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

25 04 2017

Henning Mankell was a Swedish writer and dramatist (he died in 2015) whose most well-known legacy is the sequence of crime novels, much in the Sjöwall & Wahlöö ‘Martin Beck’ mode, which feature the detective Kurt Wallander (whom, from TV, we now know to look very much like Kenneth Branagh).

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Faceless Killers (Mördare unte ansikte, 1991, translated by Steven T Murray) is Wallander’s debut. It opens with the discovery of a vicious attack on the Lövgrens, an elderly farming couple, which has left the husband dead and the wife fighting for her life. Emerging briefly from unconsciousness, Maria Lövgren is able to give the police just one word, ‘foreign’, as a clue to the identity of her assailants; there’s precious little material evidence, and no apparent motive for the brutal home invasion. When a leak to the media suggests (incorrectly) that Wallander’s team believes foreigners to be responsible for Johannes Lövgren’s death, community suspicion falls on the residents of a nearby refugee camp, and the mood turns ugly. It seems as though the only way to avert an escalation into outright racial violence is to solve an apparently-insoluble murder mystery …

Wallander isn’t a particularly stable character: he drinks to excess, has quite severe mood swings, and follows his own irrational hunches while the evidence appears to be pointing in a quite different direction. He is cast, in other words, very much in the mould of the archetypal fictional detective. In Faceless Killers, his wife Mona—for whom he retains strong feelings—has recently left him, his daughter Linda has become estranged, his father appears to be descending into irascible senility. This personal trauma intrudes repeatedly on the investigation, as does a kaleidoscope of often mundane happenstance: his car runs out of petrol, he misses appointments, he sustains a succession of minor injuries (and some not so minor), he repeatedly vows to make better meal choices the next day. And he breaks—or at least scuffs up—the fourth wall:

‘He wondered why almost every policeman was divorced. Why their wives left them. Sometimes, when he read a crime novel, he discovered with a sigh that things were just as bad in fiction. Policemen were divorced. That’s all there was to it.’

This constant accretion of humdrum detail slows the story, but it also gives it a pleasing three-dimensionality: we’re tricked into accepting Wallander as a real person, and by extension accepting also the colleagues and family members around him. In tone, temper, and pace (as well as in his author’s sociopolitical leanings), Wallander is very much the spiritual son of Martin Beck, persistent to a fault, though with less of Beck’s patience and with a rather more dour mood.

The crime is well-conceived, the investigation carefully logical (and littered with a plausible number of initially-promising dead ends), the social commentary is nuanced and reasonably thoughtful. If Mankell’s prose doesn’t quite have the searing crisp clarity of, say, Åsa Larsson or Mari Jungstedt, he still provides a robustly engrossing murder mystery.





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?