Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More on Wallander and novels out of order

With regard to the recent publication of The Man Who Smiled, which was actually the 4th novel in Henning Mankell's crime series about Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden, we had some conversation about why so many of the Scandinavian crime novels are arriving in English out of their original sequence. Before I started The Man Who Smiled, I went back to the previous novel, The White Lioness (the 2nd novel published in English, though it was the 3rd of the novels), which I hadn't read since it was new, and then I continued with Sidetracked, the novel that follows after The Man Who Smiled in the original sequence. That's a pretty big dose of Mankell in a relatively short period of time. And doing that has reinforced my impression that the novels, effective though they are, are also very formulaic--almost as much so as the paintings of Wallander's folk-artist father (always a sunset, with or without a grouse). The rhythm of the novels is determined by the lack of evidence in the police investigation--the cops are spinning their wheels for half or even more of the book. Usually, the criminal makes a few "cameo" appearances (though that's not the case with The Man Who Smiled, and the criminal conspiracy at the heart of The White Lioness is much larger than a cameo, in terms of the amount of the narrative it occupies. Reading the novels close together emphasizes that the stories are narrated rather than dramatized. That is to say, even though there's plenty of dialogue, most of the text is description of Wallander's thoughts, summaries of events or discussions not directly narrated or described, and details of the painstaking investigation. For those of us (myself included) who are addicted to the procedural as a form, the Wallander books can be very satisfying. But the formula can get a little old with frequent repetition--the appeals to the dead mentor, Rydberg; the hated press conferences; the use of dates at the end of chapters as a dramatic device. There are, of course, also references to things that happened (in the detective's private life as well as previous investigations) before--but these have a "reality effect," reinforcing the realism of the story in the same way as the endless back and forth through the streets of a small town in Southern Sweden do. But, to make a comparison, the novels of Mankell's Swedish compatriots Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö perhaps used their own formula in a more supple way. The formulaic elements in the S&W books had to do with the character of the detectives, the comic elements of the series, and the running portrait of the welfare state gone to seed (also a running element with the Wallander books). The only irritating element of the S&W formula that I can remember (and I recently read through that entire series one after the other, all 10 books, without getting tired of them--it's like a very long movie) is the constant use of the chief detectives name as a whole: it's always Martin Beck, never Beck or Martin (except in other characters' dialogue) or even Inspector Beck. Just Martin Beck again and again (but perhpas a minor irritant). The S&W books are also shorter, so there's less formula called for (and more plot) per page. The procedural elements of both series are quite prominent, very important to the structure (and the pleasure) of the books. Wallander will definitely do, in the absence of S&W's Beck, only brouht back to life in a Swedish TV series that has gone beyond the original books (which has also happened with the Wallander series in 12 or so films not based on the books). But at the same time, the comparison makes me nostalgic for that great series, and regretful that there are only 10 (I know, I know, the authors never planned for more than 10, but if Wahlöö hadn't died young, meybe...).


Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks fro reminding me how good the Sjowall and Wahloo books were.

Norman at Crime Scraps

De Scribe said...

I discovered Sjowall and Wahloo a couple of years ago, and Henning Mankell quite recently. Have been quite caught up with both (I just love procedurals). I love the way they evoke the atmosphere - physical, social, and political - of the country. Coming as I do from a different country and culture, it gives me a good perspective of the country. Am planning to read Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr to see whether it evokes Germany just as effectively.

Anonymous said...

mankell and kurt are the best. I just read two Rebus novels and they are not in the same league...But I do agree that mankell plays the same tune in most of his 9 novels.. Is there talk that he will write a serial for the NY TImes.....Bobbie