The series of Detective Kurt Wallander books by the late Henning Mankell are notable for a variety of elements, apart from their sheer readability: their impeccable plotting and nuanced characterisation (the latter as adroit as anything in the crime-fiction genre), and their distinguished literary qualities. Like P.D. James, Mankell is frequently applauded for elevating the status of the once-disregarded crime novel into more rarefied realms. But perhaps the ingredient that is most crucial to the celebrity of the books is the infusion of the writer’s own energetic social conscience, part and parcel of his desire to right the egregious wrongs of society, a conscience engendered – as with so many crime writers – from a 1960s left-wing perspective; the writer’s political trajectory is in accord with many intellectuals born in the late 1940s.
The reviews for his first Kurt Wallander book, Faceless Killers (1991, appearing in the UK in 2000) were almost all favourable, remarking on a highly individual new voice in the genre, one whose writing had real heft and intelligence. Readers quickly took to the taciturn, difficult protagonist – not in the best of health, impatient, uncomfortable with his superiors (the latter, of course, being de rigueur for literary coppers) and struggling to cope with a variety of family issues. But such was the richness of Wallander’s characterisation – a richness shared with characters in many a more prestigious ‘literary’ novel – that Mankell quickly achieved pole position in the crime-fiction genre. Faceless Killers, too, established the author’s readiness to take on his country’s fractious relationship with its then-undiscussed immigrant problem – and the non-assimilation of the incomers. In fact, it is a casually dropped observation by Wallander himself that throw suspicion on immigrants for the murder that launches the book – and although the detective passionately argues against fanning the flames of racism, he realises, in one of the very human moments that his creator frequently allows him, that there is, perhaps, a mote in his own eye in this regard.
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
Written by Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray
Published by Vintage (2011)
Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).
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