Thursday, June 26, 2014

An Event in Autumn: not the final Wallander but the last to reach us

Henning Mankell's Wallander saga has ended, with the final novel (A Troubled Man) and the final 6 episodes of the Swedish TV series, which extends the melancholy ending of A Troubled Man in an even more melancholy way, with new cases and new insights into the Ystad detective's last days. But a "new" Wallander story has finally arrived in English: actually a novella originally written for a Dutch book promotion, which offered free short books to crime fiction buyers in a specific month. In the chronology of the series, the story falls after Before the Frost: Linda Wallander is a police officer in Ystad, living with her father for the time being in his Ystad apartment. The novella was filmed as part of the British Wallander series with Kenneth Branagh in the leading role.

What will come later in the series is foreshadowed (Wallander is looking for a house in the country, thinking of getting a dog, worrying about getting older), but this moment in his personal autumn has its own interests as well. The relationship with Linda is clearer here than anywhere else in the book series (somewhat different, though recognizable, from the relationship between the detective and his daughter in the three filmed versions of the stories), and the fact that they are constantly irritating one another has begun to take on a slightly comic character. Previously, one might have wondered why they bothered to stay in touch, family ties notwithstanding, but here the affection between them clearly underlies their spiky interactions.

The case relates to an unfortunate discovery in the garden of a house that Martinsson (Wallander's long-standing right-hand man) has suggested Wallander think about purchasing as his house in the country. In an almost subliminal moment, the detective uncovers a skeletal hand sticking out of the earth. What follows is a pure police procedural, as the investigative team works through the old mystery without much hope of finding a solution. There are false leads, and leads that seem dead ends but turn out to be productive. And there is a brief confrontation with death (not quite an "exciting conclusion") as the solution is achieved.

The usual cast of characters is present, each exhibiting his/her personal characteristics as well as a specific role in the series and the investigation, and while it's a short book, the laconic style and very personal and rounded characters (detectives, witnesses, and suspects alike) that we know from the longer books are very much in evidence. In fact, the very "dailiness" and ordinary nature of the crime are more interesting to me than some of the more global and conspiratorial plots of some of the full novels. Thanks are due to translator Laurie Thompson and publisher Vintage Crime/Black Lizard for making the story accessible to we Anglophones.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Åsa Larsson, The Second Deadly Sin

Dogs have been an important element in Åsa Larsson's Rebecka Martinsson novels before, but in the newly translated (by Laurie Thompson) The Second Deadly Sin (due out in the U.S. this summer) the dogs are more fully characterized than some of the important human characters (and one of the dogs will ultimately be the subject of a crucial and very affecting plot point late in the book). Among the characters who get shorter shrift are the husband of Anna-Maria Mella (the police detective in this series, set in Kiruna, Sweden's most northern city) and a shadowy figure who becomes one of the primary suspects.

The book begins with a bear attack but quickly shifts to the murder of a woman who lives alone with her grandson (who has disappeared). Rebecka is assigned as the lead prosecutor on the case but is quickly relieved of her post by a jealous colleague (and that colleague and his jealousy are a key element in the story). Another thread of the tale goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the founding of Kiruna by mining interests: a young woman arrives to be the teacher in the mine-supported school, and is met and courted by the mine's director, who is actually a historical character, the man who is credited as the founder of the city.

The jealous prosecutor is so totally defined by his mania to destroy Rebecka that he ceases to become a fully realized character, and the villain in the historical tale (the mine's manager) is so totally "Simon Legree" evil that he, too, is a cartoon rather than a character. It's a shame to waste two such potentially interesting figures, and their thin-ness takes away from a pair of interesting stories. The historical thread not only fills in the family history that will ultimately lead to the present-day murder but also gives an interesting portrait of not only the northern frontier town but the class and culture struggles of Sweden as a whole around the time of World War I (when the country was neutral rather more for commercial advantage than ideological purity).

In the present-day story, Rebecka takes advantage of the fact that the murdered woman's family has endured a number of sudden deaths in recent years to conduct her own unauthorized investigation, uncovering the deadly avarice that is the mortal sin of the title ultimately. Rebecka's nearly animistic connection to her natural surroundings is only an occasional factor in the narrative, a marker of the isolation caused by the traumas delineated in earlier books in the series as well as her uneasy relationship with her former boss and her former urban life, in the job she left to come to Kiruna (which might be the only route back into a life with her lover). A possible love interest who is resident in the north is a police dog handler who has shown up in previous books, a gentle but terribly disfigured man more comfortable with his canine colleagues than the human ones.

Though the book does carry the series forward in interesting ways, to me it's not the strongest of the Martinsson series, and is definitely not the place for a reader to start (the first two of Larsson's novels deal with a subject not often focused upon in other Swedish crime novels, religion, in interesting ways, and the introduction to Martinsson and other characters in these and the other two subequent books is really necessary to follow what's going on between the lines in the new book.