Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

This book was recommended to me by a friend, so I felt a bit of pressure to like it. But I didn't, I'm sorry. I tried. The book's blurb compares Mankell's detective Kurt Wallander to Martin Beck, the protagonist of the iconic Swedish detective series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, written in the 1960' and '70's. I have read all 10 of those books, and they remain my favorite mysteries, so it's a hard act to follow.

This book does bear a surface resemblance to the Sjowall/Wahloo books: Mankell has written a series of classic-style police procedurals with Kurt Wallander as the primary detective. The Martin Beck books are also police procedurals. Both series are set in Sweden, and have at the center a troubled, depressed detective. Both engage in social commentary, especially criticism of Sweden's welfare state. But while the Sjowall/Wahloo prose is spare and ironic, Mankell's is merely flat and dull. Martin Beck's cronies are gems of characterization (even 20 years after reading them, I remember the antics of Kristiansson and Kvant, a pair of Swedish Keystone Kops); Wallender's cronies are interchangeable cardboard cop-cutouts. I could never keep them straight thoughout the story, except one of them was dying of cancer, but which one was he again? And while Sjowall and Wahloo lighten the journey with judicious use of dark humor, Mankell is just dark dark dark.

Clearly Mankell is hoping to be associated with his predecessors: An early chapter of his book begins with this line: "The last thing Kurt Wallander felt like was a laughing policeman as he stepped into the Svea Hotel in Simrishamn at seven o'clock on a Friday morning." The Laughing Policeman is the title of the fourth Martin Beck mystery, a book that is far better written and more interesting than this one. I don't recommend this book, but I do recommend the 10 Martin Beck mysteries, which have recently been reissued by Random House as part of their Vintage Crime/Black Lizard line. Read them in order: start with Roseanna.

Mankell has a large following, and I notice that some of his books have a different translator than the one I read. Maybe this would make a difference; if someone has read lots of Mankell's books, and can tell me that I chose to start with the worst one, then maybe I would try another. Leave me a comment or send me an email and tell me which one is the best, and I'll give the series one more chance (but not right away).

Here is a link to a Henning Mankell fan site that looks pretty comprehensive.
(Book 8, 2006)


Anonymous said...

I have found this post now, Becky, thanks for the link. I am not sure I did know your blog when you posted it, as my memory is so bad. As I mentioned before, you probably won't like any of the Wallender books as they are somewhat samey, so if you don't like the style, then they probably aren't for you. However, if you want to try another one, Before the Frost is a good one as it is mainly about Wallender's daughter Linda.
I found these books even more confusing than you, becuase they were published out of order and I read them that way, so for example the most recent one I read, The Man Who Smiled, introduced the female detective who is Kurt's friend in later books.
I agree that if you read them a year apart you can't really remember everyone. This happens to me increasingly. Someone gets left in a cliffhanger or a "will she won't she" situation at the end of a book in a series, I can't wait for the next one, but by the time it is published and I read it, I've forgotten it all.

A. said...

Henning Mankell's books were recommended to me by Ruth Rendell (I had to tell you that - it's my only claim to fame!) but to be honest I don't like them very much at all.

I passed the books I had on to my husband who knows Sweden fairly well, and he loves them. He admits they are bleak but likes that in a way because he maintains it does reflect much of Sweden.

Have you read Vargas at all? Very French and most set in Paris.

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