Swedish Cop, Timeless Murder

There’s a distinct darkness on the edge of the old towns along the coast of southern Sweden in the dangerous world created by Henning Mankell and inhabited by his brilliant and reluctant police inspector Kurt Wallander.

I’ve ploughed through nearly all of the ten or so Wallander books in translation over the past few months, set in Skane just across the water from Copenhagen, an area of ancient villages, flat and barren landscape, farms and beaches.

They’re among the best detective books I’ve ever read, falling into the police procedural sub-genre; Mankel leads the reader matter-of-actly through the dogged, often mundane pursuit of criminals. But he has also created some of the most horrific killers ever to prowl a novelist’s page, monsters who terrorize the farmsteads and quiet flats of Skane.

Mankel is a master of dramatic plot disclosure, spending most of his time traipsing along with Wallander, a puffy, late 40s divorcee who drinks too much, spends too much time alone, and worries incessantly about his grown daughter and aging father.

Wallander’s daily world is utterly mundane – lonely meals, long drives, flat tires, endless police bureaucracy. The detective is both the plodding, stubborn type but also possessing of a rare instinct; he’s a man of cursory insight and strong powers of observation, even if the meaning of things takes a long while to unfold.

But now and again, Mankel moves from the familiar Wallander to the minds of his killers and the view is terrifying. These are damaged people, most have been abused or discarded. There is always a reason for their turn to violence, but Mankel is far from easily sympathetic.

He explores the failure of their childhoods, or the political systems that spawned them, but he doesn’t excuse the violence.

The Wallander series is a bit of a fin de sicle for old Sweden. The constant theme is a changing Swedish society, no longer quiet and stolid, but part of a wider and more violent world. Immigration is changing a homogeneous society.

When violence strikes, Swedes immediately blame the outsiders. In truth, some of Mankel’s killers are Swedish and some are foreigners; Mankel’s comment seems to be about human congress in general, and he rejects a “Swedish way” while still publicly mourning the change.

Kurt Wallander has not been to television here in the United States yet, but his is a character that will certainly rival those on CSI or Law & Order. The series has been dramatized in Sweden in full, and by the BBC in part.

The Wallander series is among the best-selling detective series in Europe, and it was recommended by my virtual buddy Pete Townshend. Indeed, there are Wallander-themed tours of the town of Ystad, where the series is based.

Here in the U.S., Mankel hasn’t cracked the top 1,000 on Amazon yet, but I think he may eventually. The plots are that good, the villains that nasty, and Kurt Wallander that good a character. Here’s a small taste, from The Dogs of Riga, a typical understated bit of police station by-play.

Inspector Kurt Wallander sat in his office at the police station in Ystad and yawned. It was such a huge yawn that one of the muscles under his chin locked. The pain was excruciating. Wallander punched at the underside of his jaw with his right hand to free the muscle. Just as he was doing so, Martinsson, one of the younger officers, walked in. He paused in the doorway, puzzled. Wallander continued to massage his jaw until the pain subsided. Martinsson turned to leave.

“Come on in,” Wallander said. “Haven’t you ever yawned so wide that your jaw muscles locked?”


Martinsson left, and Wallander stretched out in his chair. He could feel how tired he was. He’d been forced to answer emergency calls two nights in a row.

The first night he’d led the hunt for a suspected rapist who’d barricaded himself in an empty summer cottage at Sandskogen. The man was drugged to the eyeballs and there was reason to think he could be armed, so they’d surrounded the place until 5 a.m., when he’d given himself up.

The following night Wallander had been called out to a murder in the town centre. A birthday party had got out of hand, and the man whose birthday it was had been stabbed in the temple with a carving knife.

He got up from his chair and put on his fleece jacket. I’ve got to get some sleep, he thought. Somebody else can look after the snowstorm. When he left the station, the gusts of wind forced him to bend double.

He unlocked his Peugeot and scrambled in. The snow that had settled on the windows gave him the feeling of being in a warm, cosy room. He started the engine, inserted a tape, and closed his eyes.