Also by The Slacker: mystery novel ‘New Holland’
So there are to be no more Wallander novels. People wanting a further Wallander fix will have to continue relying on the three television adaptations (two Swedish, one English).
But of course, it’s not quite the same. Take the English TV series, for example – Kenneth Branagh might be a wonderful actor, but he can’t quite capture that depressed, workaholic and neurotic policeman from Ystad who wonders where Swedish society is headed. For one thing, he looks far too healthy. This leaves the only choice for dedicated fans to go back and read the novels again (and perhaps again after that) to recapture that feeling of being up at 6 with a headache and drinking coffee, watching the lamppost swinging outside the kitchen window and wondering about the case.
But where to start? With the best novel one, of course…use the guide below to help you (part two to follow)….
The one where Wallander investigates the torture and murder of an elderly couple in a farmhouse. The only clue is that the killers may have been ‘foreign’. When it seems that ths is the case it leads to a backlash and several racially-motivated attacks. Initially he’s scathing of young Martinsson, a cadet, but he proves invaluable in the book’s dramatic denoument.
Opening Wallander line: ‘Kurt Wallander was asleep’. Having, as it emerges, an erotic dream. He wakes up to touch the bed next to him, remembering that it’s empty; his wife has recently left him. And so starts nearly twenty years of loneliness and self-loathing…
Why it might be the best Wallander novel: Written in 1991, it should be seen as something of a landmark – one of the first stories to examine immigration from Eastern Europe following the crumbling of the Soviet regime, and the effect this will have on Western European society. Mankell said of the novel that he sees racism as a crime, which is why he wanted to write about it in this context: it is dealt with here honestly.
However, Mankell was still finding his protagonist in Faceless Killers. At times Wallander seems a little too upbeat, and the line ‘His [Wallander’s] face had appeared so often in the newspapers and on television that it was known all over the country’ feels especially out of place. But the prose is plain and tight, the just as in the later novels, and it’s very readable.
Classic Wallander passage, found at random: ‘He stopped at the electrical shop by the square. He was considering buying a video in an attempt to conquer the loneliness of his evenings.’
The Dogs of Riga
The one where Wallander investigates the mysterious appearance of two bodies washed up on a beach. The two dead men are well-dressed and from Eastern Europe. Pretending to go on leave, Wallander follows the trail to Riga in the final days of the Soviet era and discovers the truth behind the deaths – as well as meeting Baiba Liepa.
Opening Wallander line: ‘Inspector Kurt Wallander sat in his office at the police station in Ystad and yawned.’ Indeed he yawns so hard that a muscle under his jaw locks, and he has to punch himself. It is then that he hears about the two bodies, in a raft and on their way to Sweden.
Why it might be the best Wallander novel: As with Faceless Killers, Mankell focuses on the changes taking place in Eastern Europe and their impact on Sweden. Written just as the Soviet regime finally gave way, the work is again timely. The rough edges are also being shorn off Wallander – this is the one where he keeps looking in his desk drawer at the job application for a head of security and wondering whether he should leave the police.
Knowing the former Soviet space fairly well, I felt that a weakness were the two colonels he meets in Riga – I felt they, and the setting, were a little stereotyped, and it is highly unlikely that they’d speak such good English as they’re meant to here. Manknell was praised for the atmosphere of Riga, but to me it pales in comparison to, say, the way Stephan Collishaw describes near neighbour Vilnius in his two novels set in that city.
Classic Wallander passage, found at random: ‘Wallander had his bath, made an omlette, phoned his father and then went to bed. Before pulling down the roller blinds at his bedroom window, he looked out into the street. A solitary streetlight was swaying in the gusty wind.’
The White Lioness
The one where Wallander starts off investigating the disappearance of a God-fearing mother of two close to Ystad, and ends up involved in a conspiracy aimed at killing a recently released Nelson Mandela. Wallander’s already on sick leave by the time of the dramatic ending, but as you can imagine he nevertheless manages to play a key role.
Opening Wallander line: ‘When Detective Chief Inspector Kurt Wallander arrived at the police station in Ystad on Monday morning, April 27, he was furious.’ It turns out that his father’s getting married to a woman almost half his age; Wallander’s been burgled and had his precious CD collection stolen; and he’s cut himself shaving. What a start to the week.
Why it might be the best Wallander novel: In terms of the prose/characterisation, this in pretty much Mankell at his very best. At over 400 pages this is the longest Wallander mystery yet, though nothing feels wasted.
Perhaps slightly odd is his decision to base the story on someone wanting to murder Nelson Mandela. Though he does make important political points through this (no doubt his intention; I certainly finished the book better informed), it does detract from the suspense slightly as the reader knows there is no way Nelson Mandela’s going to be killed.
Classic Wallander passage, found at random: ‘He put on the earphones, lay back on the sofa, and tried to think of Baiba Liepa. But instead Louise Akerblom’s face kept filling his mind.’
The Man Who Smiled
The one where Wallander almost doesn’t come back to police work after a long break due to sickness. Then a solicitor he knows is murdered; the man’s father died in suspicious circumstances a short time earlier. Before he knows it he’s knee deep in an investigation involving international organ harvesting – and someone powerful is on his trail.
Opening Wallander line: ‘The man, a long way out on the freezing cold beach, was suffering in thre icy blasts.’ The man is of course Wallander, on a beach in Denmark and trying to overcome depression following killing a man in the line of duty. Before the beach he’d been up to no good in the Caribbean and Thailand. A little later on in the chapter he gives up opera music and buys some pop cassettes to replace them – then the solicitor turns up on the beach, wanting help with his dad’s suspicious death.
Why it might be the best Wallander novel: It’s up there with the best, this one. As usual Mankell tackles an unsavoury area of modern life – focred organ donation – creating a text both informative and dramatic. You’ll get fed up with hearing this, but the prose is tight and nothing feels wasted or unnecessary.
If there’s a weakness it’s the speed at which Wallander decides to return to work, having been determined to leave and taken his time to deliberate over this. Also, the ending does feel a bit overblown (just as is the case with the Branagh TV episode of this story).
Classic Wallander sentences, found at random: ‘Wallander drove to his father’s house at Loderup shortly before 7pm. He stopped on the way to buy some buns to eat with the coffee. When he got there his father was in the studio, painting the same old picture: an autumn landscape, with or without a grouse in the foreground.’
I’ve often wondered whether his father’s painting is Mankell’s metaphor for the Wallander stories – when boiled down to their essence, the plot structures are fairly similar (though this is not a bad thing).
The one where Wallander is at his most chilled out, ready for a lovely summer holiday and trying to ignore all the fuss about the 1994 World Cup. Then on the way home one night he witnesses a girl commit suicide in horrifying circumstances. Summer’s cancelled as he finds himself on the trail of a dangerous killer who scalps his victims, and the world of people trafficking. His investigations put his daughter, Linda, in danger.
Opening Wallander line: ‘Around noon on 21 June, Kurt Wallander left the police station in Ystad.’ Not forever, but so that he can get some peace to write a speech for his boss, who’s leaving. The crafty devil has even left his coat on the back of the chair so no-one knows he’s gone. He sits in a harbour cafe but doesn’t get far with the speech, managing instead to moan at the waitress that summer is still a way off.
In other words, it’s what qualifies for a good day in the world of Wallander.
Why it might be the best Wallander novel: It’s the most decorated, having won the CWA Gold Dagger, and perhaps it is my favourite. There’s tension right from the start with the horrifying suicide, an unusual killer and a gripping plot. The text is also woven well with Wallander’s usual neuroses about his father, his health and Linda, who ends up being an integral part of the story for the first time.
Classic Wallander sentences, found at random: ‘It was raining even harder now. As Wallander hurried through the garden he remembered that he was supposed to be visiting his father tonight. With a grimace he went back to the house.’
Saul Pope is the author of ‘New Holland’, a mystery novel set in Russia and published by Espresso Books. He also writes for the football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’.