Saturday, March 23, 2013


By Henning Mankell

Forget Afghanistan.

Forget the Congo. Never mind Somalia, Rwanda or Colombia. Safe havens, all of them, compared to the world's most dangerous country. If the novels of Henning Mankell serve as any indication, the country in which you are most likely to be murdered in cold blood is undoubtedly Sweden. And it's not run-of-the-mill sort of violence one needs to fear while traveling the Great White Nørd but rather the grisly variety. The sorts of crimes that require a full forensic team to identify the remains. The sort of crimes that have remains rather than simply bodies. Mexico City is as secure as a bank compared to Stockholm, Malmo and Ystad.

Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander Series serves as a reminder to anyone thinking of traveling or (worse!) relocating to Scandinavia: Think twice, O weary traveler for thou goest forth into the realm of Scandinavian Crime fiction, the most specific pop culture genre after Spaghetti Westerns, Lucha Libre and German Scheiße videos.

Firewall is the eighth book in the Kurt Wallander Series but it is only the second (after Faceless Killers, the first in the series) that I have read personally. Firewall begins with the seemingly senseless and disturbingly violent (of course) murder of a taxi driver by two teenage girls. Another man dies a natural death on the other side of town. But slowly Wallander and the Ystad Police Department begin to piece together a cyber-conspiracy that combines the two cases and expands its reach intercontinentally. Along the way there are any number of grisly and disturbing murders (just in case the original murder wasn't gristly and disturbing enough). And to think there are seven novels preceding Firewall (and that doesn't even account for the uncountably number of murders that occur in the novels of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo). Given the population density compared with the total number of violent murders, well... Scandinavia is a dangerous place.

I was a bit concerned about jumping to book eight in the series. I worried that i was breaking the continuity of the narrative, and there were some unavoidable spoilers along the way, but I was surprised how well Henning was able to contain the story within the confines of Firewall without divulging the previous stories. I like that can always go back and read any of the books I skipped knowing that I haven't the faintest idea what will happen.

However, the jump was a little awkward in that it was a little like watching the original Rocky and then skipping to Rocky V without watching the slow degeneration of the series along the way. While I don't think the Wallander Series suffered the sort of fall Rocky suffered along the way, there did seem to be a degree of implausibility to the plot in Firewall that didn't exist in Faceless Killers. I wonder whether Mankell spent seven books upping the ante to the point where Firewall's narrative wouldn't have seemed so outlandish to someone who had read the entire series up to that point.

Furthermore, Firewall is not the sort of novel that could have aged well. Books that rely heavily on technology never do. It was published in 2002 and Mankell spends a lot of time explaining terms, such as "firewall", "server" and "code," that most of us understand, at least in principal, nowadays. Even if you aren't computer savvy, a reader in 2013 doesn't need a half page explanation about how banking transactions can be performed over the Internet. Naturally, Mankell could not have foreseen a world in which this would be common knowledge and nit-picking over a few dated references shouldn't dissuade anyone from reading this novel. But forewarned is forearmed.

But where the storytelling lapses into the realm of the dated or the implausible, the actual writing remains consistent to what a fan of Scandinavian Crime Fiction should expect. Ebba Segerberg's translation is hauntingly austere and completely lacking in idioms giving the novel a cold, stainless steel tone. As with Faceless Killers, Firewall reads like a veritable policing manual on how to (and sometimes how not to) run an investigation. Readers will enjoy the almost belabored way in which Mankell presents the facts of a case, dissects them and divides them, rethinks them and rehashes them and then does it again every time a new piece of information becomes available to the investigating team.

The constant reinterpretation of the facts is not only helpful to the reader but also in accordance to what a detective would do throughout an investigation. For all Firewall's implausibility, Mankell remains loyal to the spirit of policing in that he has written a consummate police force, but one that suffers from the same politics as real life forces. A police force that often stumbles and bumbles under pressure. A police force that is often understaffed and unappreciated. A police force that is populated by real people with real problems and real lives.

One might say that Mankell has written a wonderful novel about a typical police force, but this is the Scandinavia of the literary world. Mankell's typical police force is destined to clean up the world's most atypical crimes. And while Stockholm may weep, readers should rejoice.

But it's no wonder Wallander is consistently threatening to retire.


Brian Joseph said...

Sounds interesting but the technology thing might get tiring. I also do not like to read series out of order but I suppose with self contained mysteries it might not be a problem.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Excellent review. Thanks for sharing this info about the mystery and this new Scandinavian mystery genre.

Athira said...

You're right - some of the most gory grisly scenes come from Nordic crime books! I haven't heard of this series but assuming I can stomach the gore, it does sound pretty good.

Ryan said...

@Brian Joseph: You can skim the tech stuff. I did. It made the story flow a bit better.

@Athira: Nobody does grisly like the Swedes. This series has, apparently, been made into a TV series, though I haven't yet seen it.

bookspersonally said...

Love the description of the writing as "austere... cold... stainless" - sounds like it sets the perfect mood for nordic crime

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