Tag Archives: Sweden

Farewell, Kurt Wallender, we’re sad to see you go

A Review of The Troubled Man: A Kurt Wallender Novel, by Henning Mankell

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

All good things come to an end, and for Kurt Wallender, this is it. There will be no more novels from Henning Mankell about the complex and troubled rural Swedish detective with an uncanny ability to stumble into spectacular murder cases.

The Troubled Man is aptly titled. The book tells the story of Wallender’s last big case, taking him deeply into Sweden’s politically complex past and arousing self-doubt that is more profound than ever. As Wallender pursues the baffling disappearance of a retired Swedish naval official, he learns ugly truths about his country’s recent history. The Troubled Man, though partly an exploration of one man’s complex character, is also a fascinating tale of espionage told through the eyes of a brilliant detective as he slowly sorts through the contradictory facts he encounters.

Mankell is an even more interesting character than his signature protagonist. Now 63, he has a long history as a leftist activist, having participated in the explosive events of 1968 and, as a young man in the 1970s, lived and collaborated for a time with a Norwegian Maoist. He has lived in Africa for many years and was actively engaged in promoting Mozambique’s independence from Portugal. Recently, he was on board the ship that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Mankell is a prolific writer, with more plays to his name than novels. He is married to Eva Bergman, daughter of the legendary director, Ingmar Bergman, and is involved in a creating a mini-series for Swedish television about his father-in-law. Mankell spends at least half of every year in Maputo, Mozambique, where he has been the director of a theater for many years.

The 10 Wallender novels (11, counting one featuring his daughter, Linda, also a police detective) are intensely political. The underlying theme in them all is what Mankell views as the disintegration of Swedish society in recent decades, with crime, and especially violent crime, rising sharply, contentious debates over immigration, and ever nastier political discourse. “What went wrong?” Mankell asks. Though Wallender, the detective, is apolitical, Mankell himself has been actively engaged in public affairs for more than four decades.

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What is it about Swedish mystery writers?

A review of The Pyramid and Four Other Kurt Wallender Mysteries, by Henning Mankell

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

First (at least in my consciousness) there were the ten Martin Beck police procedurals of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, published from 1965 to 1975. Now we flock to bookstores and movie theaters to enter the world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomqvist, who sprang from the mind of the late Stieg Larsson in the captivating form of the Millennium Trilogy.

In between there was Kurt Wallender, the moody small-town police inspector created by another masterful Swedish writer, Henning Mankell. Wallender made his first appearance (in English) in 1997 in the novel Faceless Killers. Wallender lived on through seven other novels, the last of which, Firewall, appeared in English translation in 2002. (An eighth, and reportedly last, Wallender novel is due in 2011 under the title The Troubled Man.) The series has won numerous awards and gained a large audience in the English-speaking world — deservedly so, in my opinion.

The Pyramid is something of an afterthought but no less worth reading than the Wallender novels. It’s a collection of five stories that span the time from Wallender’s rookie year on the police force until the period when, a mature and respected inspector, the crimes detailed in Faceless Killers took place. As he ages from his early 20s to his 50s, Wallender grows increasingly morose in the face of his dysfunctional family relationships and the senseless crimes he is called upon to solve.  The Pyramid lays bare the roots of his problems. For any Kurt Wallender fan, it’s well worth reading.

Mankell is a serious writer. Like Sjowall, Wahloo, and Larsson, he is a man of the Left, and his writing explores the changes in Swedish society that have come about under the impact of drugs, immigration, and the newly competitive political environment which has brought conservatives as well as socialists into power.

ISBN-10: 1565849949

ISBN-13: 978-1565849945

ASIN: B00457X876

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

A review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

First things first: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is unquestionably the most successful of Stieg Larsson’s three volumes about Lisbeth Salander.

Salander,  one of the most extraordinary characters ever to inhabit the printed page, is one of a large cast that includes the author’s fantasy doppelganger, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist; Mikael’s colleagues at Millennium magazine; Lisbeth’s employer and members of his staff; a hefty number of police officers; a crew of secret agents; assorted prosecutors, social workers, and attorneys; Swedish Cabinet members; and a large group of baddies, including the thugs who hang out in a motorcycle club and two members of Lisbeth’s own family.

You might think that such a motley crew of characters could never fit within the confines of a single volume, much less come across as real people. Not so here.

Well, maybe not real people. But the novel works. The suspense will raise your blood pressure. In a word, Hornet’s Nest is unputdownable.

Unlike so many of the complex, multi-character stories I find myself reading, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is easy to navigate. I rarely found myself wondering where or how a minor character had come into the story. Larsson’s writing is so vivid, and his characters so well drawn, that I was able to avoid my usual habit of searching through previous chapters to remind myself who was who.

A novel, like all of history, is a study of change. As Joseph Heller wrote, “Something happens,” and a character (or characters) change as a result. In that sense, the three books in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and ending with this long but consistently gripping novel, together constitute a single story. It is only here, in the closing sections of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, that we can see clearly the change that has been wrought in Lisbeth Salander as she passes through the trials by fire spelled out in these three engaging tales.

ISBN-10: 030726999X

ISBN-13: 978-0307269997

ASIN: B0031YJFCQ

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The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

A review of The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Before Stieg Larsson and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there was Henning Mankell, the long-reigning Swedish king of crime fiction with his internationally popular series of detective novels featuring the world-weary policeman, Kurt Wallander. With The Man From Beijing, Mankell has reclaimed his right to the summit.

The first volume of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Tattoo, was a revelation and, to nearly everyone’s surprise but the author’s — and that only because he’d died in 2004 — the book was a breakthrough international bestseller. A Swedish-subtitle film of the same name is opening in the USA as I write, and an American production in English may not be far behind. But the second novel in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire, though engrossing, was disappointing by comparison. (See my earlier review in this blog.)

The Man From Beijing was anything but disappointing. I had devoured every one of Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels, catching them as soon as they appeared in English. Beijing showcases the same insightful treatment of the “new” multicultural Sweden, the same fine understanding of how cultures clash and confuse, and the same wholly believable characters caught up in a horrific sequence of events that skirts the limits of the possible but never quite crosses over the line.

Mankell’s protagonist in The Man From Beijing is Birgitta Roslin, a district court judge in a small Swedish city. In the midst of marital conflict and the psychic weight of aging — she’s in her mid-fifties — Roslin finds herself caught up in the second-worst murder incident in Sweden’s history (after the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, a real-life event that took place in 1986). Nineteen people, all but one of them retired to live out the few remaining years of their lives in a tiny, isolated northern village, are brutally murdered. Roslin’s passion for the truth leads her to undertake an independent investigation during time off from her work, since the police in charge of the case seem to be ignoring what she is convinced are important clues. That investigation eventually leads her into perilous circumstances in China.

The story line in Beijing is beautifully constructed, maintaining suspense until the book’s climax very near the end. As a murder mystery alone, this novel is worth its weight in electrons — yes, I read it on my Kindle — but I was equally gripped by Mankell’s astute depiction of leadership-level politics in China today and by the convincing way he portrays the standard Chinese defense of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Mankell knows whereof he speaks when his novels venture into Africa. For the past 25 years, he has been the director of a theater in Mozambique and divides his time between Sweden and East Africa. It’s truly refreshing to read stories by a writer who cares not only about his characters but also about the state of the world.

ISBN-10: 0307271862

ISBN-13: 978-0307271860

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The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

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@@@@ (4 out of 5)

You have never met anyone like Lisbeth Salander, the “girl” in the title — guaranteed. Lisbeth is a tattooed, waif-like young woman with a brain of gargantuan proportions, an eidetic memory, an unsurpassed mastery of the Internet, and a mysterious past. In this unlikely but engrossing story of murder and corruption in the dark corners of contemporary Sweden, Lisbeth’s past is revealed in an encounter reminiscent of the games played out in the bowling alley of the gods.

“The Girl Who Played with Fire” is the second novel in a trilogy centered on Lisbeth Salander that launched with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and will conclude in May 2010 with “The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest.” Sadly, the author of this unique little crime series died shortly after delivering the manuscripts for all three novels in 2004. Larsson was the editor of a politically engaged magazine, much like Mikael Blomqvist, who figures in both this novel and its predecessor as Lisbeth’s friend, foil, and sometime lover.

The power of Larsson’s spare prose and the extraordinary character of Lisbeth Salander vaulted “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” onto  best-seller lists internationally. Readers everywhere were captivated. There is much of the same experience in store for you in this sequel, but perhaps familiarity with the protagonists took the edge off my experience. I found this book slightly less satisfying than its predecessor, but I’m no less eagerly looking forward to its successor.

ISBN-10: 030745455X

ISBN-13: 978-0307454553

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