Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Henning Mankell, 1948 - 2015

Case Notes

Henning Mankell (Photo: Munro McLeod For The UK Guardian)

At the end of Faceless Killers, Henning Mankell's first crime novel, his main character, police Detective-Inspector Kurt Wallander, sits in the dark talking with his mentor, retired Inspector Rydberg, who is dying of cancer. A murder investigation is over, the killers are apprehended, and Wallander talks with Rydberg about the case.
     "We made lots of mistakes," Wallander said thoughtfully. "I made lots of mistakes."
     "You're a good policeman," Rydberg said emphatically. "Maybe I never told you that. But I think you're a damned fine policeman."
     "I made too many mistakes," Wallander replied.
     "You kept at it," said Rydberg. "You never gave up... that's the important thing."
     The conversation gradually petered out. I'm sitting here with a dying man, Wallander thought in despair... The incantation flashed through his mind: a time to live, and a time to die.
     "How are you?" He asked cautiously.  Rydberg's face was unreadable in the darkness.
Henning Mankell died yesterday at age 67, roughly eighteen months after being diagnosed with cancer. He was a playwright and director who married the daughter of film director Ingmar Bergman, and served for several years as Director of Sweden's national theater. He was most prolific as an author of fiction -- including thirteen stand-alone novels and eight novels for children.

But Mankell will be remembered in Europe and America primarily as author of twelve more novels, "Krimis", featuring Swedish police Detective-Inspector Kurt Wallander -- as vibrant, individual and human a detective as Simeon's Inspector Maigret, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, or Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe.

Detective fiction as a genre had been popular in Europe since the end of the First World War, but  publishers considered them entertaining diversions with formulaic, predictable characters and plots. Agatha Christie, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Georges Simeon, Erich Kästner, 'S.S. Van Dine', Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler all sold well enough, but detective stories were not taken seriously by publishing houses in Europe or America.

Neutral Sweden was untouched by WW2. Trading with Allies and Axis, it remained secure and became rich. After the war, a wealthy Swedish society could afford to provide all basic needs for its citizens -- a social safety net that was the envy of the world. But by the late 1960's, the open State was experiencing everything from rock music and antisocial teenage behavior, to drugs, organized crime; corporate corruption; and, as increasing numbers of refugees poured in from around the world, a right-wing backlash from some who wanted to end Sweden's its traditional open-door asylum policy.

The quiet, isolated northern country which had escaped the ravages of a world war found itself unsure of its future, and the problems imported from a larger world. At roughly the same time in the 1960's, a Swedish couple, Maj Söwall and Per Wahlöö, wanted to write novels exploring those issues -- and used the format of the crime novel as their vehicle.

Söwall and Wahlöö's stage was Sweden's capital, Stockholm, with a cast of police detectives led by a senior investigator named Martin Beck. Their framework was what we now refer to as the "police procedural": we follow the detectives as they piece together evidence, using the same methods, systems and protocols as real Swedish police.   

And, the two authors were among the first to present their policemen as all-too human -- they were cynical and idealistic by turns, and driven by a sense of duty. They had drinking problems, money problems; marital problems (one moves in with a barely above legal age girl). They argued with bureaucracy, complained about their pay, and fought with each other in petty rivalries around office politics. They had political positions (for or against America's war in Vietnam), and might occasionally smoke pot.

The novels immediately became popular in Sweden, then across Europe. Söwall and Wahlöö's Martin Beck and his squad were immediately accepted by Constant Reader, the person in the street, as valid, three-dimensional characters.  These Swedish cops reflected the world that the readers lived in. Publishers saw money to be made and began trying to find the "next  Söwall and Wahlöö".

Within a few years, a new niche publishing industry developed:  Krimis, from the German, Kriminalroman (crime novel).  It's no exaggeration that Steig Larson, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Ian Rankin, and a large number of other Krimi authors would not have been as successful without Söwall and Wahlöö's work -- and that includes Henning Mankell.

By the time Mankell began writing his crime series, the Krimi industry had been developing for over twenty years; as a market, it was arguably over-saturated. What made Mankell's work stand out and succeed is, simply, his talent as a writer. He tells (as best we know through the translations of his works) a good story; the voice of his narrator is reliable.

His characters are believable; the pacing and the action in his plots follow the typical rising-action-to-resolution framework, but none of the details about his characters or events in the story lines disturbs our suspension of disbelief. And most important -- the character of Kurt Wallander is immediately familiar.

Divorced, diabetic, self-doubting, Wallander worries -- about his daughter, who can't seem to find her place in the world; about his father, a curmudgeonly artist who only paints one basic theme (with or without the Grouse) and who begins suffering from Alzheimer's. He tries to figure out how he might find the money for a dream of a small house, and a dog. We've met him, and whether you're male or female it's not hard to imagine being him. At a minimum, we find ourselves emphasizing with him, and caring about what happens to him.

He listens to opera, keeps buying one Peugeot after another, and worries about his connections to the world, about dealing with his superiors and peers -- but when Wallander is presented with a case, his self-doubts recede and he is focused, driven, and decisive. We like our heroes to resemble us, and we want them to be better, to rise to challenges as we always hope that we could; Mankell gave his readers a character which did both.

And, like Söwall and Wahlöö, the crimes in Mankell's novels spring from changes in Swedish society, brought on by events in a larger world. Faceless Killers, the first in the Wallander series, is about a brutal double murder seemingly involving non-European refugees. Firewall explores terrorism through digital technology; themes in The Fifth Woman and The White Lioness touch on modern Africa; "The Man Who Laughed" involves corporate piracy and a self-assured Oligarch figure above the law. Before The Frost is a look at religious extremism, an echo of Jonestown and the People's Temple.

Wallander became a worldwide phenomenon; two Swedish television series based on the character in the early 2000's were followed by the BBC version in English, starring Kenneth Branagh. Mankell had been involved with the Swedish production company, Yellow Bird, in developing scripts for stories not connected to his novels. There's more to that story; I've written about it here.

Mankell, like Oliver Sacks earlier this year, had written publicly about his battle with cancer, and had just sent a brief article to the UK Guardian before he passed away:
Eventually, of course, the day comes when we all have to go. Then we need to remember the words of the author Per Olov Enquist: “One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.”

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