“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.”

Henning Mankell, Faceless Killers

mankellMy copy of Faceless Killers is littered with snippets of praise, both for Mankell in general and for the book in particular. “Sweden’s greatest living mystery writer!” (Los Angeles Times). “An especially satisfying crime novel” (Wall Street Journal). “A thriller of the very best kind.” (The Times [London]). “Beautifully constructed plots.” (New York Post). “An excellent thriller…A terrific novel.” (The Independent [London]).


I’m not in a position to generalize about Mankell, or Wallander, after reading just one novel in this series. But I honestly can’t see why this book, or its author, would stimulate such enthusiasm. The style is almost unbearably plodding–not quite as dreary as the Stieg Larsson books (or the 1.5 of them I managed to wade through), but close. Maybe the fault lies with the translators, but there is no elegance, no rhythm, no color to the prose at all: it’s just one statement after another. Its starkness does seem suited, after a while, to the bleak landscape–both literal and emotional–of the novel, but that didn’t rescue it from seeming perfunctory, as writing, rather than artistic or literary: it often seemed as if Mankell was just working his way down a checklist of things to include or describe:

At 4 p.m. that afternoon Wallander discoverd that he was hungry. He hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch. After the case meeting in the morning he had spent his time organising the hunt for the murderers in Lunnarp. He found himself thinking about them in the plural.


For the next three days nothing happened. Naslund came back to work and succeeded in solving the problem of the stolen car. A man and a woman went on a robbery spree and then left the car in Halmstad. On the night of the murder they had been staying in a boarding house in Bastad. The owner vouched for their alibi.

He gets the job done, but do reviewers really have such low expectations for crime fiction qua fiction that something so flat gets so much praise?

Perhaps the “very best kind” of “terrific” thriller doesn’t need great prose, just an interesting and well-constructed plot (a double-standard, of course, as if genre fiction should not be expected to be well written in every respect). How good is Faceless Killers by this measure? It’s fine, I guess. By the end the necessary information has been gathered and the pieces fitted together. Because it’s a procedural, solving the case is a matter of following along as the police do their job, which necessarily makes us more passive as readers–we have to wait for their discoveries to be delivered to us. Lots of very good crime novelists use the procedural form–as P. D. James has pointed out, nowadays it’s really the only way to write realistic mysteries, after all. A procedural can become rich and interesting if the contexts and the characters are developed enough and the police’s discoveries aren’t all strictly literal. Cases can be devised that draw both detectives and readers into new territory–social, political, intellectual, even philosophical. And the detectives themselves can be made multifaceted, and have plot lines of their own, so that the case under investigation becomes a device for personal exposure or exploration as well. James, of course, does all this brilliantly (think of A Taste for Death, for instance), as does Ian Rankin (whose last three Rebus novels in particular deserve to be called ‘condition of England’ novels), and sometimes Elizabeth George (Deception on His Mind, I think, is one of her most interesting). Faceless Killers reads like a thin version of, say, Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close. Wallander is a close cousin of Rebus (and not too distant from Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks)–which is not to say that Wallander is derivative (if I have the chronology right, they are basically contemporaries), just that with his divorce and his drinking and his depression, he seemed formulaic, another in an already well-populated group. Over the later books in the series, perhaps, he distinguishes himself in some way besides his fondness for opera.

The crime is very violent, and described very graphically, and there are some intense action sequences in the novel. I suppose this is why some of the reviewers call it a “thriller” rather than a “mystery.” I don’t enjoy that kind of reading very much: I’d rather be drawn in intellectually than manipulated through fear and suspense. This, I recognize, is basically a matter of taste, though I think that it is worth asking if different kinds of preferred experiences might in fact be more or less valuable, or whether we ought to seek out or encourage preferences that pander to our baser nature rather than our higher! (Look, for example, at Wayne Booth’s comments on Jaws in The Company We Keep, and ask yourself “who am I being, what am I desiring, as I go along with this kind of story?”) Here I think Mankell’s dull style is actually a good thing, because though grim, his violence is not really sensational–it’s just there, and then we move on to the next thing. The case does touch on some broader issues, particularly xenophobia and tensions over immigration. Again, though, the treatment seems perfunctory: we don’t spend time among the asylum seekers in the camps, and the central crime turns out to be connected only incidentally to the racial tensions it stokes. Probably the most distinctive feature of the book, for me, was its atmosphere, a relentless cold heaviness. Things just always get worse, and then there’s more sleet and snow. Who wouldn’t want to spend hours immersed in that?

I read Faceless Killers for a couple of reasons–first, because Mankell is such a big name now that I figured I should have some first-hand experience, and then because I would like to broaden my course reading list by adding some ‘international’ authors and Scandinavian crime fiction is very hot right now. If he bumped anyone from my usual list, it would be Ian Rankin. Right now, though, Rankin wins: he’s just a better writer. The question is, should I (must I?!) read more Henning Mankell to be sure. Suppose I read one more, to see how much better he gets: any recommendations?