Human Mysteries: Notes on Wallander

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In a Brookline, Massachusetts reading last February, Henning Mankell talked about the motivation behind his famed novels. He said that the first Wallander mystery was, in fact, an exploration of the xenophobia that he found in his countrymen. In the wake of the confusion surrounding the assassination of Olof Palme, Mankell picked the name “Wallander” out of the Stockholm phone directory and began to write police procedurals. In each successive work, Mankell used the character of this Wallander, a typical, anxiety-ridden policeman, as an everyman whose life and career could illustrate of what it means to be human in the face of such global uncertainties.

It seems particularly appropriate that a novelist would choose to study the ways that societies like Sweden—ultra-modern nations that provide an extremely high quality of life—become hotbeds of xenophobia. It shows the dark depths that persist beneath the apparent comforts of the twenty first century. The work of Henning Mankell provides not only a striking representation of the fear of others from within his home country, but an imaginative insight on how it develops on the geopolitical scene.

Growing up in a provincial northern Swedish town, Mankell had an almost daily contact with the justice system. “I grew up very close to our system of justice,” he said. “My father was a provincial judge. We lived upstairs from the court where he meted out justice. In my newest work I created a female judge. The woman had been a Maoist and had to distance herself from her former position.” The author has since spent almost half his life associated with various NGOs in Africa and the Middle East, and he currently works in the Mozambique theater. Living for so long outside of Sweden has given the author an idiosyncratic outsider / insider perspective from which to study his nation. It is this point of view that gives his work its interest. Mankell’s works contain a moral landscape with Sweden superimposed upon it. His novels are not only mysteries in the common criminal sense; they expose the darker secrets of human society as well.

The themes of Mankell’s fiction remind one strongly of Thomas Mann. Mann detailed the landscape of Europe both anticipating and responding to the Second World War; like Mann’s novels, the Wallander mysteries are au courant—Mankell’s backgrounds range from World Cup soccer to contemporary politics. Recently, Mankell was one of those arrested on a flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Palestine: it would be no surprise to find that moral landscape in a future book. Its page-turning qualities not withstanding, Mankell’s police procedurals are continually turning up new corners of the broader moral landscapes of modern culture. They are not merely artifacts of that group of page-turners known as the “Scandinavian Invasion.” Provincial Swedish towns and foreign Africa are not mere backgrounds or local color pieces. Like Mann’s work before him, Mankell’s mysteries both anticipate and respond to contemporary geopolitics.

Mankell’s use of a typical policeman / everyman is an evolving form that knows where it is going but improvises to get there. “I have the form in my head,” Mankell said in Brookline. “I’m fond of classical jazz, especially Charlie Parker. He would play for 15 minutes. However, when he started his solo, Parker knew exactly where he was going. That is the only way you can improvise.” After Mankell identifies that form in his head, improvisation plays a huge role in every novel. Some forms play off aspects of Wallander’s existence, such as his bad diet of junk food, his inability to keep rendezvous with his wife, or his disagreements with his father; other forms, as in The White Lioness, have a multi-layered complexity that allows Mankell to explore a larger subject—in this case, the transitional period in South Africa from De Klerk to Mandela.

The Pyramid, a collection of shorter fiction, spotlights the way Mankell works with form and improvisation. The story “Wallander’s First Case” explores the detective’s obsession with the details that solve a crime: he impersonates being a detective before he actually becomes one, and then agonizes about his own behavior until the crime is solved. The successively complicated stories in The Pyramid show how Mankell develops details of police work as a “play within a play,” improvising through each classic detective scenario. In the first full-length Wallander, Faceless Killers, the last word of the victim is “foreign” and the police work thereby transforms into a study of Sweden’s anti-immigrant feelings. In another full-length novel, The Dogs of Riga, Mankell sets Wallander in a procedural that leads to “an alien world where shadows are everywhere.” In The White Lioness, the murder of a Swedish housewife leads Wallander to unravel a complex plot involving the transitional leadership in South Africa. This most average of detectives Wallander is thrust into observing actions on the global stage.

Returning to Swedish society, Mankell enlarges the scope of his global investigations inSidetracked. Wallander probes a deserted beach where a former minister of justice has been brutally murdered. The trail of a suspected serial killer shows Wallander at his most intuitive and takes him deeper into self-reflection than any of the other novels. Mankell here improvises within the form to excavate the societal despair that Swedes experienced after the assassination of the politician Olof Palme.

The plot of Sidetracked emphasizes this tension between “the form in the head” and the “improvisation” that makes satisfying fiction impossible to put down. The book begins by dipping into the mind of the victim, who in this complex case is also a criminal within a well-respected retired eminent jurist:

Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skåne. No-one would have guessed at his double-sided self. He had greeted kings presidents, he had bowed with a smile, but in his head he was thinking I knew who I really am and what I think of … He could feel himself begin to fantasize about what the girl would look like. He had told them there he wanted a younger one, preferably waiting in the basement where he would take the girl with him to his bedroom. Be and he would already be daydreaming the following week of the next evening made him so and went into his study…

After being dropped into the mind of this powerful antagonist, who shows unmistakable signs of being a sexual predator, the reader encounters Wallander hardly able to perform the banal details of his day. Mankell’s representation of this banal anxiety is key. It is not just a dour form of realism. This is the other side of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” In Wallander, Mankell depicts a banality of the good, one average guy who finally gains closure on a nearly inscrutable crime, and in so doing, overcomes the monstrous plots that arise from the hearts of fellow men and women.

Mankell has penned a mystery series that seems perfectly suited for adaptation to the theatre, television, and film. It hardly seems an accident. This fall the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre will premiere his play, “Politik,” on the death of Olof Palme. Mankell’s involvement in the theatre is a key to his writing, so it is also no surprise that his stories have been picked up by the BBC, with Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. While Mankell takes pains to insist that Branagh’s version of Wallander is not necessarily Mankell’s, his refusals fail to disperse the idea that Wallander—perhaps like Branagh’s other famous role, Hamlet—has become a vehicle to convey the interpretations of others as well as Mankell.

Branagh gives a pitch-perfect rendition of the ill-smelling, frumpy, barely-functioning Wallander. His apartment is always a mess; he never has time to shop; he can’t stay married, but he remains in love with his wife (he doesn’t have time, or doesn’t take the time, to go through the various rites of passage as a son or a father); he can’t even keep a dog, because he hasn’t taken the trouble to get a proper place to house it (or himself). But his mind is a blade, cutting into the surfaces of events to uncover their obscured intentions. Wallander is still a detective, uncouth and irregular as he might be, and Mankell does not forget it. The mysteries that Wallander faces, and the path to unravel them, are dramatic and thrilling.

In Sidetracked (as in many Wallander plots), a crime occurs that seems to be off the grid, outside of the careful eye of right society. Near a distant farmhouse in a field of ripe grain, in full yellow bloom, a young woman sets herself afire. Wallander’s dogged police work follows the same theme as so many mystery tales: things are never what they seem. The most fascinating passages in Sidetracked are where the details of everyday living are interposed with the machinery of CSI-type activities that lead Wallander to take a measure of the girl’s humanity:

The forensic technicians started to work in the harsh glare of the floodlights, where moths swarmed … A lone girl appears as if shipwrecked in a sea of rape and takes her own life by inflicting the worst pain imaginable … She had set herself on fire as though she were her own enemy, he thought. It wasn’t him, the policeman with the waving arms, she had wanted to escape. It was herself…

As the leads multiply and the pace intensifies, Wallander learns to rely more on human intuition. His first intellectual breakthrough reads like the scenario of the modern Hamlet:

Wallander stood by his window looking out at the summer evening. The thought that they were still on the wrong track gnawed at him. What was he missing? He turned and looked around the room, as if an invisible visitor had come in.

So that’s how things are, he thought. I’m chasing a ghost when I ought to be searching for a living human being. He sat there pondering the case until midnight. Only when he left the station did he remember the dirty laundry still heaped on the floor.

By the time there is a break in the case, Wallander is full of self-loathing. In an all too human rant, resembling that of any dedicated soul, he beats himself up:

He went back inside, into the shadows, with a feeling of utter self-loathing. Sjösten was on the phone. Wallander wondered when the killer would strike next. Sjösten hung up and dialed another number. Wallander went into the kitchen and drank some water, trying to avoid looking at the stove. As he came back, Sjösten slammed the phone down.

“You were right, “ he said.

Wallander never concedes the need for computerized aids, staying as close to the human details as possible. Often the things he doesn’t fully understand—art, poetry, and philosophy—become, in the end, an integral part of the solution:

“Can you remember the name of the boy off the top of your head?”

“Yes, I can. But I can’t stand here yelling it into a mobile phone.”

Wallander understood his point. He though feverishly.

“Let’s do this, then,” he said “I’ll ask you a question. You can answer yes or no without naming names.”

“We can try,” said Malmström.

“Does it have anything to do with Bellman?” asked Wallander.
Malmström immediately understood the reference to Fredman’s Epistles by the famous Swedish poet.

“Yes, it does.”

Despite his intense focus on the ordinary and his inability to cope with the banal anxieties of his own life, Wallander realizes that an excursion into poetry, however brief, offers a possibility of making some sense of the terrible crimes. In these mysteries, as in poetry, it is by the confluence of the human and the representational that Wallander finds light through the darkness.

Often the human aspects of his own character are a mere distraction to Wallander while he solves a crime; but then, in the aftermath—until the next crime appears—he returns his mind to the everyday: to try getting his life together, to relax, to become a little more human in his downtime. One portion of the series that illustrates this is the comic portrayal of his father, a painter with whom Wallander has been at a mutual impasse since he expressed his intention to become a policeman. This relationship serves as comic relief from the intensity of the police work, but also symbolizes the gulf between the artist and society. In the most “Hamlet” sequence of Sidetracked, Wallander tries to envision a world without his father:

He wondered what he would do when his constant feelings of guilt were gone. The trip to Italy would probably be their last chance to understand each other, maybe even to reconcile. He didn’t want his good memories to end at the time when he had helped his father cart out the paintings and place them in a huge American car, and then stood by his side, both of them waiting to the silk knight driving off in a cloud of dust, on his way to sell them for three or four times what he had just paid for them.

When he receives a frantic call from his father’s caretaker saying that his father has begun burning his paintings, Wallander deals with the situation as intuitively as the horrible crime he is solving:

“Did I do all this?” he asked, looking at Wallander with restless eyes as if he feared the answer.

“Who doesn’t get sick and tired of things?” Wallander said. “But it is all over now. We’ll soon get this mess cleaned up.”

He understands the moment when the old painter begins destroying his paintings without knowing why; in realizing this, in making this connection, he has also come to understand his father: one also suddenly feels then that Wallander will solve the looming puzzle. Meanwhile, the horror of the crime leads Wallander to question the premises of the society itself:

What kind of world was he living in? A world in which young people burned themselves to death or tried to kill themselves by some other. They were living in what could be called the Age of Failure. Something the Swedish people had believed in and built had turned out to be less solid than expected. Now society seemed to collapse around him, as if the political system was about to tip over, and no-one knew what architects were waiting to put in a new one in place, or what that system would be. It was terrifying, even in the beautiful summertime. Young people took their own lives. People lived to forget, not remember. And the police stood by helpless, waiting for the time when their jails would be guarded by men in other uniforms, men from private security companies…

In the end, of course, the crime is solved. The policeman’s worst fears—of private security forces to combat formless foreign incursion—are not realized. The xenophobic theme sounded by Wallander is balanced by the controlling perspective of Mankell the author. A favorite fact for Mankell is “the rate of the movement out of Africa as measured by scientists.” At the Brookline reading, Mankell said, “they [scientists] calculate that rate as 24 km per generation. This means that we human beings are created to live with patience. At that rate, it took civilization thousands of years to move from Africa to the Philippines. This is a beautiful reminder of what a human being is.” It is a beautiful note that has begun to sound through all of the Wallander stories.

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About Mark Schorr

Mark Schorr is a poet, critic, and teacher. He is the director of the Robert Frost Foundation, and his collection of poetry, Conscious Explanations, was published in 2008 by The Pen & Anvil Press.