Monday, May 06, 2013

the last book I read

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell.

Meet Inspector Kurt Wallander: a tough, uncompromising Swedish cop. Han spelar inte i boken, men vid Gud att han får resultat.

Actually, Wallander is a bit of a mess. His wife Mona (I bet she was! eh? eh?) has just left him, and his daughter Linda isn't speaking to him. Throwing himself into his work, he's eating badly, drinking too much and generally not looking after himself very well. But, at the same time, dammit, results, etc. So when elderly couple Johannes and Maria Lövgren are found at their farmhouse, Johannes dead and savagely beaten and mutilated, and Maria similarly beaten but just about clinging to life, Wallander is called in to take on the case.

The only clues Wallander has to go on are the oddly-tied noose found around Maria Lövgren's neck and her last word before she croaks it at the hospital: "foreign". Naturally this sets Wallander to thinking about the nearby refugee camp and its inhabitants, and also about the local community's dangerously febrile attitude towards it.

But regardless of who was responsible, questions remain to be answered. What was the motive? The Lövgrens had no known enemies, nor anything that anyone would want to steal. And why did whoever carried out the murders feed the Lövgrens' horse before making good their escape? Well, it turns out that Johannes Lövgren wasn't quite the snowy-white pillar of the community he appeared to be: not only did he apparently keep a mistress on the go, but fathered a child with her back in the 1950s, and also had access to a secret stash of money made in nefarious circumstances during the Second World War.

So, cherchez la femme, and possibly her son, and the case will be solved - simple. Well, things get a bit less simple when word gets out via the press of Maria Lövgren's last words and someone takes it upon themselves to murder a Somalian refugee. Rounding up those responsible distracts Wallander and his colleagues from the original murder investigation for a bit, but when they get back to it they quickly locate Erik Magnusson, Johannes Lövgren's illegitimate son. Simmering resentment of Lövgren's treatment of his mother, concern about not inheriting his rightful share of the money - he'll be our guy, surely? Trouble is, Magnusson has an airtight alibi for the night of the murders, so it can't have been him.

So all looks lost; several months pass and the investigation has no new leads. It's only when Wallander has a moment of inspiration after a trip to the bank that he remembers the bank teller with the near-photographic memory that he questioned back in the early days of the investigation. A quick bit of questioning and a look at some CCTV footage later and Wallander's team have a couple of suspects - two men who followed Johannes Lövgren into the bank when he went to make a clandestine withdrawal of some of his secret stash - and it looks like Maria Lövgren was right after all, as they're foreigners. After a bit of trawling round the refugee camps Wallander has a couple of names, and the scene is set for the climax with the usual chasing around and fighting and tying up of loose ends.

Nordic noir is big business these days, and it's interesting to reflect on why that might be and why we Brits find it so fascinating. I think part of it is that we think that the Scandinavians, with their liberal governments and their relaxed attitudes to communal public nudity, are just generally more hip and groovy than us, and are almost certainly having more fun, particularly of the sexy variety, than we are. There's therefore also probably an element of envious glee at seeing their perfect society crumbling round the edges as they have to address the unpalatable truths of their recent eugenics scandal as well as some simmering racial tensions. Whatever the reasons, Mankell's books, as well as those of the late Stieg Larsson and many others, sell in large numbers, sufficiently so for several Wallander adaptations to have been made for TV, most recently starring our very own Kenneth Branagh, who you'll notice is the cover star of my TV tie-in version of the book.

Other than the Swedish setting, though, the Larsson and Mankell books don't have that much in common. The Larsson books are big, fat, lurid thrillers with lots of frankly unlikely chasing around and plot twists, while Faceless Killers is pretty grimy and low-key; Mankell even denies us the satisfaction of a neat thrilleresque plot resolution by having the Lövgrens just randomly tortured and killed by some random opportunists who happened to see Johannes pick up a load of cash in the bank.

Strip away the cultural unfamiliarity and this is a fairly bog-standard police/crime affair, though. The semi-alcoholic cop whose personal life is a shambles but is still capable of crazed intuitive leaps of crime-solving is a pretty well-worked one, as anyone who's read any of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels can tell you. And the dénouement here where Wallander and his team switch from chasing Erik Magnusson and start going after the right guys seems weirdly compressed, occupying as it does only the last 25 pages or so of the book.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, and it rocks along very entertainingly, but I'd be reluctant to say it's any better than a whole host of other crime fiction not set in Scandinavia, the Rebus books for example. If you want a genuinely weird Scandinavian crime thriller I would strongly recommend Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow. If you just want crime fiction set in an unfamiliar (or at least non-British) location then I would even more strongly recommend Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series.

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