Tuesday, December 15, 2020

the last book I read

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell.

Meet Inspector Kurt Wallander. Again. Is he still keeping up his gruelling schedule of not playing by the book but - dammit - getting results? You bet your IKEA-cushioned Swedish ass he is. In fact he's dialled up the mavericity to near-critical health-endangering levels, and a visit to his doctor after a near-death experience of drowsiness at the wheel of his car reveals that he has incipient diabetes, a legacy of his general lifestyle habits which include long hours, little sleep, stress, gallons of coffee, poor diet and occasionally snarfing a couple of herring and a pound of lingonberries off a Billy bookcase.

But at the moment there's little time for lifestyle re-alignment, five-mile jogs and endless Ryvitas: crimes are afoot that require Wallander's finely-tuned detection skills to unravel. It starts with some missing persons - firstly a group of three young people, all good friends and known to be in the habit of organising themed "happenings" involving dressing up in historical costumes, and none of whom have been seen for some weeks. Their parents have received occasional postcards from other European locations, purportedly from their children, but one of them is suspicious that her daughter didn't write "her" postcard. Secondly, Wallander's colleague Svedberg, normally conscientious and punctual, hasn't been seen at work for a few days.

Svedberg's whereabouts are the first to come to light, after Wallander leads a group of police to check out his flat: he's in his flat, in a chair. Well, most of him is; some of his head and its contents is on the wall and there's a shotgun on the floor. A possible connection to the missing youths is provided by the revelation that Svedberg had been working on the case, but had seemingly kept the details of his enquiries secret from his colleagues.

Soon enough the three missing youths turn up, badly decomposed and arranged in a bizarre tableau on a secluded beach. Pretty obviously they haven't been there the whole time, or someone would have found them earlier, but that means that someone killed them, went to the trouble of concealing their remains, probably by burying them, and then later dug them up again and put them on display. But who? And why?

Further murders ensue: the fourth member of the historical dressing-up group (absent from the Midsummer celebration at which the other three were killed owing to a gastric bug) turns up, attempts to kill herself, and (after being rescued) flees to a remote island cottage owned by her parents, where she is pursued firstly by Wallander, who wants to ask her some questions, and subsequently by the killer, who wants to shoot her in the head, and does. Shortly afterwards the killer strikes again, shooting a young couple having some wedding photographs taken on a beach, and topping the photographer for good measure.

Wallander and his team are struggling to keep up; all they have to go on is a photograph found in Svedberg's flat of a woman supposedly called Louise who may or may not have been Svedberg's girlfriend. Circulating her photograph around the neighbouring police forces eventually yields a result: the Danish police identify her and Wallander eventually tracks her down to a bar in Copenhagen and confronts her, whereupon she almost immediately gives him the slip and disappears. Wallander quickly realises why: Louise is actually a man, and slipped out of the bar unrecognised after a quick wig and make-up removal. So was Louise's male alter ego Svedberg's gay lover? Is he the killer?

Wallander eventually realises that the killer's detailed knowledge of his victims' plans derives from his having opened and read their mail, and some cross-referencing of postal staff, their delivery shifts and the time and place of the killings finally leads him to knock on Åke Larstam's door. Larstam isn't just lounging around in his pants drinking Stella and watching Pointless, though: he has a detailed escape plan up his sleeve and evades the police once again. Riled by Wallander's interference, he decides to make him his ninth victim and breaks into Wallander's flat to wait for him. Here is the killer's one fatal mistake, though: Wallander rarely goes home, preferring to take occasional catnaps at his desk or in his car. When Wallander does eventually return Larstam takes a pot-shot at him but only succeeds in grazing his cheek, whereupon a chase ensues to some nearby woods, culminating in Wallander throwing off his diabetic lethargy, ambushing Larstam and clocking him one in the mush, rendering him unconscious and ready to be brought in for questioning.

And so to bed. Well, briefly, for there is some wrapping-up activity to be done including Wallander taking the plaudits of his colleagues for his rumpled maverick genius in solving the case and the rueful apologies of the pompous stuffed shirts at Sweden Central for questioning his methods. And then it's off for a well-deserved break, some fresh air and perhaps a green salad.

I purchased One Step Behind in some sort of BOGOF deal along with its predecessor Faceless Killers a few years back. Faceless Killers was perfectly fine, but I'm not completely sure I would have bought another Mankell/Wallander on the strength of it. However, since I already had this one and fancied a mystery thriller I thought I'd give it a go. And this seems to me a much better book, as tired as the old serial killer trope is. It certainly does the minimal job required of a mystery thriller, which is to make you intensely interested to find out what happens next, even though the final revelation is inevitably a bit of a disappointment. Wallander is an endearing protagonist, though it's hard to avoid maverick cop genre cliché in a field already populated by the likes of Aurelio Zen, Harry Hole and John Rebus, not to mention a whole slightly less rumpled parade of the likes of Wexford, Morse, Banks, Dalgliesh, Wycliffe et endlessly cetera

Seasoned thriller-readers (and thriller-watchers) will recognise a couple of plot points which echo other works: the means by which the killer gets detailed information about his prospective victims (intercepting their mail which he has privileged access to thanks to his job) is strongly reminiscent of the methods of Francis Dolarhyde in Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (though that was home movies rather than letters). And the episode where Wallander breaks into Larstam's flat to find it customised to Larstam's own requirements is vaguely reminiscent of the similar (though somewhat more over-the-top) scene in Se7en

One Step Behind is one of the novels adapted into a 90-minute drama starring dear dear Kenny Branagh as Wallander; judging by this clip of the ending a few substantial plot details were changed, notably Larstam's death, the involvement of Wallander's daughter and a cameo from Tom Hiddleston, none of which appears in the book.

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