It started with the (fantastic) TV documentary Nordic Noir which was broadcast last month. It was cold and I was snowed in. Perfect weather for cozying up with dark crime from freezing landscapes.
Scandinavian crime fiction exploded onto the literary scene with the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö but I haven’t read them. (cf Footnote 1) For the purposes of this blog tour, however, we’ll still start in Sweden with the originator of my fascination for the genre, Henning Mankell.
The Wallander series is on my completist list. I’ve been working my way through them – not in chronological sequence, as they were not translated that way - for a number of years and at the time of reading (cf Footnote 2) I had only The Pyramid remaining. Readers were curious to know the reasons behind Wallander’s fractious relationship with his father and the factors that led to the breakdown of his marriage to Mona. So Mankell obliged, packaging the details in a collection of short stories and novellas which also followed Wallander’s career progression from rookie cop to seasoned detective. The crimes are varied, both in motivation and setting and yes, part of the title and indeed strongest story in the collection, The Pyramid is set in Egypt. More than that though, the architecture of a pyramid is mirrored in the structure of the crime which Wallander must solve. Far-fetched maybe but enjoyable none the less.
Surprisingly Wallander annoyed me! The first rule of policing is never to walk into a potentially dangerous situation alone. Yet, time after time Wallander ignored it and, as a result, got beaten, bruised and shot for his travails. You’d think that for all the character development shown elsewhere, he’d be able to iron out what for me became a major character flaw.
I also take issue with the marketing of this collection as a prequel. While some of the stories predate the events of the earlier novels, most don’t and there could be some serious spoilers for those who make this their introduction to the series.
Hakan Nesser, one of the subject-matter experts on the TV documentary, is as popular in Sweden as Mankell. He writes literary fiction as well as crime fiction and does not like the latter being classified as a sub-genre. In 2009, 15 years after Woman with Birthmark had appeared in Sweden, he had published 22 novels. As of 2011, there are 5 available in English, all from his Inspector Van Veeteren series. On the basis of the literary control displayed in Woman With Birthmark , Nesser has been added to my completist page.
Chapter 1 tells us whodunnit and, after the first murder, it’s not too difficult to work out whydunnit. (It’s all in the modus operandi.) The remainder of the novel is written from differing perspectives: the killer stalking the prey, the prey deliberately luring (indeed!) the killer and van Veeteren and his team trying to catch up with both to prevent more unnecessary death. I was breathless many times either from failing to breathe (the reader’s equivalent of looking at the TV through open fingers?) or from having the wind knocked from my sails. The denouement is emotionally shattering, and that, knowing as much as we do throughout the novel.
At the same time we gain insight into the lives of the detectives, burgeoning romance, day-to-day irritations, etc and there is an underlying wit at work which serves to break up the darkest moments. The following example chosen due to personal resonance at the time of reading.
But then again, he knew that the moment he did something about replacing a broken part, something else would break.
His car was like that, that’s all there was to it.
A bit reminiscent of life itself.
That same wit was on display during the TV documentary. “This fascination with Scandinavian crime fiction is just a phase, and, like all phases, it will pass” said Nesser. Maybe so, but there’s still a way to go for me at least, seeing as I’ve added all the translated van Veeteren to my virtual TBR.
Footnote 1 – Will read some Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö this year, once I locate that set of 10 I bought from The Book People a couple of years ago.
Footnote 2 – Just when I complete the series, the author publishes a new title. Sod’s law?