“Sheer misery”: Mankell and Scandinavian Noir

Henning Mankell’s most recent (and, as I understand, also his final) Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, is being released in its English translation this week. I’m still enjoying a break from my immersion in Scandinavian crime fiction, though I picked up another of the Martin Beck mysteries during my most recent excursion to Doull’s (The Abominable Man)–now that I’ve decided to assign one for my fall mystery course, I have to figure out which one, so I’ll be back reading them again in a bit. I won’t be rushing out to buy The Troubled Man right away, as I still need to catch up on the rest of the series (I’ve read only Faceless Killers and The Fifth Woman so far). Now that I’ve been thinking more about the characteristics of these books myself, though, the coverage of Mankell’s latest is interesting in itself. I must say that I particularly enjoyed the parodic opening of the review in the Guardian:

The flat, affectless sentences went on. Like rape out of season they stretched to the horizon in grey fields. Wallander found he was in another book. There was no reason for this. There could be no reason except money, but it would take 300 pages for him to work this out. It always did. Later, he would think about this often, but he could not reach any conclusions. Perhaps it was drink. Perhaps it was senility. Perhaps it was just the conventions of a Swedish crime novel. He wondered if any of this mattered.

Another page turned. His daughter rang. She disturbed him. This might be because she was the only human character in the entire book. She tells him he is a self-pitying bore but she loves him anyway. After she has gone he will spend some time looking out of the window and feeling regret while he remembers incidents from other books. Later, she has a baby, but to show she belongs in the book she will refuse to name it for three months. This is a joke that worked better in Doonesbury where the author was aware that people might find it funny.

An old girlfriend turns up. She is dying of cancer. Soon, she will kill herself, although it may have been an accident. Wallander is unhappy for some weeks, and then he decides he will always be unhappy. Life continues.

Spot on! And yet as you know, I have been brought round somewhat by the thoughtful arguments some of you made in response to my criticisms of Faceless Killers, to accept that the surface tedium of this style has its own literary antecedents and justification. (Thanks very much to @Liz_Mc2 for sending me this link via Twitter!)

There’s a longer piece in the Financial Times that is prompted by a recent BBC production, a “Danish-made Copenhagen set” drama called The Killers. The article opens with The Troubled Man (“the first page of the first chapter of Henning Mankell’s … The Troubled Man is sheer misery”) and then moves into a more general inquiry into the current popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction:

Crime fiction has long depended on a sense of dark forces lurking below calm surfaces and it is not unusual for it to have a reformist, critical edge. Critics have pointed to US noir novels and films as an allegory for fears of subversion and communism in the 1940s and 50s. English country-house crime of the Mousetrap genre depended on an assumption that, behind the tennis and the gin, bestial passions waited their time.

But in Scandinavian noir this is frequently married to a revolutionary intent. Most of these writers are militantly left-wing. It is a tradition started by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a couple of Swedish journalists who, between 1965 and 1975 (when Wahlöö died in his late 40s) wrote the 10-novel Martin Beck series. Beck, a Stockholm police inspector who resembles the later Wallander, stoically solves crimes that are often rooted in upper-class chicanery or lower-class desperation.

It’s not obvious why fiction of this kind (novels “from Marxists who write of people beset with misery who either commit or must deal with acts of extreme sadistic violence”) would have any market appeal today. Sex and violence always sell, as some of the interviewees note, and many of the most successful novels (the Stieg Larsson ones especially) are hyper-modern: “the trappings of contemporary technology are much in evidence.” But there’s also the variation these works provide on the consistent preoccupation of crime fiction: the ongoing contest between order and disorder. The Scandinavian countries have long exemplified a certain kind of contemporary social order: “their “model” – one of high taxation funding comprehensive welfare and education, coupled with world-beating corporations – has roused envy and emulation, as have the orderliness of their civic life and the fluency of much of their population in foreign languages.” Such control inevitably (or so the novels persistently suggest) comes at a cost, and has its own dark side:

Rigidity in maintaining surface order, the mark of the Scandinavian social democracies, needs to be breached violently by those who are, ultimately, on the side of order – otherwise it will be breached by the violence of those who would destroy it.

The piece ends with some comments from mystery novelist Joan Smith; I was interested that she describes the Wallander novels as “very old-fashioned,” and points to “Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason in Iceland, Jo Nesbø in Norway” as  doing something much more interesting.”

2 thoughts on ““Sheer misery”: Mankell and Scandinavian Noir

  1. Annie March 27, 2011 / 6:32 am

    I’d missed that Guardian review, Rohan, but it is wonderful. I shall have to go back to the on-line version and print it off. I’d like to keep a copy of that. Someone else mentioned Nesbo to me the other day as worth having a look at and I’d forgotten to do anything about it. I must see what the library has. I’m certainly not up for another Wallander at the moment.


  2. Dorian Stuber March 29, 2011 / 7:51 pm

    I would say that Nesbo is very enjoyable (Harry Hole is like Rebus but a bit more interesting) but not groundbreaking. Indridason, on the other hand, is in a class of his own. Each of his books (even though connected by a predictably, even parodically mopey oldish loner) is stylistic quite different. I think he is the most intelligent of the current Scandinavian crime writers.


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