A Detective for Our Times

Author(s): Wendy Lesser
Source: The Threepenny Review, No. 96 (Winter, 2004), pp. 14-15
Published by: Threepenny Review
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4385293
Accessed: 22-05-2017 09:59 UTC

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al, though it can be both; it is also the nal unnecessary distraction or show-
hunch, the instinct, the unconscious offiness. The sentences of the
realization. Sometimes we spend two or Wallander books do not beg to be
A Detective for Our Times three pages just sitting with Wallander aloud as poetry. That is not th
while he reads through the case file strength. Like Wallander himself, t
once again. Sometimes we watch as he are serviceable, methodical, decent,
Wendy Lesser looks at photographs, or stands quietly often transparent, though capab
in a victim's apartment, hoping to be hiding information at times. They
able to spot the one thing that's not the perfect medium in which to tra
quite right. Fully half of Wallander's mit thought, which can be fragmen
OT SINCE the Martin Beck their pace. We spend a lot of time with time seems to be spent waiting for these and inchoate as well as solid and com-
mysteries, the ten-bookKurt
Wallander doing his laundry, or elusive thoughts to rise to the surface. plete. Their unobtrusiveness is, in this
written in the late Sixties and early
rather, forgetting to do his laundry and The solution, or part of it, floats at the respect, their most valuable quality, for
Seventies by the Swedish couple
to sign up once again for a slot corner of his mind, just out of reach, it enables us to feel that the thoughts
Sjowall and Per Wahloo, haveinI his apartment building's laundry
found and if he turns to face it directly, it are coming to us direct.
any detective novels that appeal toWeme watch him make shopping darts away. It is this motion, of the The thinking we have access to is not
as much as Henning Mankell's Kurt
lists, stop for hamburgers at fast-food mind's attempt at retrieval, that is the just that of Kurt Wallander. In the first
Wallander books. The fact that the restaurants, take his old Peugeot in for most characteristic and alluring action two books, Faceless Killers and The
more recent series is also Swedish may
repairs or replacement, go to the doctor, in the Wallander mysteries. And it is Dogs of Riga, we begin as we might in
have something to do with this appeal.
visit his elderly father, call his daughter perhaps this ongoing process of watch- a typical Law and Order episode, with
It is a pleasure to find myself back on
in the phone, and check the tempera- ing thought take place which explains the people who discover the bodies.
ture on the thermometer outside his
that small, orderly, easily violable, why we don't, at the end of a The perceptions of these relatively
kitchen window. There is a lot of refer- Wallander book, feel the usual let-
essentially humane culture-a culture unimportant bystanders offer us our
ence to the weather in these books, and down of the mystery novel. The arrival
I've learned about mainly through read- first exposure to the murders that shape
most of it is not case-related; it is
ing these two detective series. (Whether at the solution is not all that matters; a the books; after that, we shift to
it even remotely resembles the real instead a central element in this small- great deal of the interest, and the plea- Inspector Wallander's perspective for
town Swedish world which becomes,
Sweden is another question entirely.) sure, comes from how we got there. the rest of each novel. For the third
Things in Sweden have changed, of book in the series, though, Mankell
course, since Martin Beck's time. They came up with a much more complicat-
have changed, as Kurt Wallander ed structure. The White Lioness begins
repeatedly complains, just since he in the mind of the Swedish real estate
started solving murders a little over a KURT WALLANDER MYSTERIES BY HENNING MANKELL
agent who will become the first murder
decade ago. As the world has become victim. The narrative then switches
increasingly violent and heartless, even viewpoints as wildly as it does conti-
Faceless Killers, translated by Steven T. Murray. The New Press/Vintage,
rural southern Sweden, Wallander's nents: from the detectives in Ystad to
$13.00 paper. Originally published as M6rdare utan ansikte, 1991.
formerly isolated stomping ground, has some spookily powerful figures in
gone the way of the world. Drug trade, The Dogs of Riga, translated by Laurie Thompson. The New Press, South Africa, thence to their hired
international conspiracy, murder-for- $24.95 cloth. Originally published as Hundarna i Riga, 1992. killers back on Swedish soil, and finally
hire, racist violence, child abuse, com- to the South African detectives who are
puter crime, and many new kinds of The White Lioness, translated by Laurie Thompson. The New Press/ working to foil the conspirators' plot.
insanity have flooded in through Vintage, $13.00 paper. Originally published as Den vita lejoninnan, 1993. The effect of this shifting sensibility is
Sweden's open borders. But there to make everybody, including the
remains a core of solid dailiness, Sidetracked, translated by Steven T. Murray. The New Press, $14.95 killers, more accessible and in a way
embodied in the life and personality of paper. Originally published as Villospar, 1995. more sympathetic.
Inspector Wallander, that somehow Mankell re-uses the technique to
The Fifth Woman, translated by Steven T. Murray. The New Press,
keeps the extreme horrors at bay. The great effect in the subsequent books.
$24.95 cloth. Originally published as Dem Femte Kvinnan, 1996.
view Mankell puts forward in these The next three (not counting the
detective stories is neither meliorist nor untranslated Mannen som log) are
One Step Behind, translated by Ebba Segerberg. The New Press/Vintage,
optimistic, but even at its darkest it is a $13.00 paper. Originally published as Steget Efter, 1997. Sidetracked, The Fifth Woman, and
view that ultimately depends on a belief One Step Behind, each of which tops
in human decency. Whether the belief is Firewall, translated by Ebba Segerberg. The New Press, $25.95 cloth. its predecessor as an entrancingly com-
well-founded is not the sole point. It Originally published as Brandvdgg, 1998. plicated mystery plot. Firewall, the last
endures anyway. in the translated series, is slightly more
The first Kurt Wallander mystery streamlined, though it has its own spe-
came out in 1991, and they then began cial merits, particularly those of clo-
appearing on a nearly annual basis, for the duration, our world. We learn This is why the books can be compul- sure. In these later novels, Mankell
with each book set about a year earlier the street names of Ystad (the town in sively readable even on a second or often begins by occupying the mind of
than its date of publication. What this the Skane region where Wallander lives third reading, as I discovered when I the criminal. This does not destroy the
topicality meant was that Mankell was and works), and we learn that it is pos- took them up again for this article. suspense; we can be inside someone's
often riding the wave of history before sible to walk from Wallander's apart- Intending to skim for the plots alone, I mind without knowing who he is. But
it had even had time to break on our
ment on Mariagatan to a downtown found myself willy-nilly relaxing into it does lend a combination of creepiness
shores. The 1992 Dogs of Riga, for
restaurant, or from the police station to that luxurious, detail-studded pace. and compassion to the discovery
the local hospital. Probably no detec-
instance, anticipated the disarray into process. Part of the capacious humanity
which the Soviet Union and its satellite tive in literature-and certainly no of the Wallander books lies in the fact
states would soon fall; the 1993 White other overweight detective-has done F THE NINE Inspector Wallander that even the perpetrators of atrocious
Lioness was even more prescient about more casual walking than Wallander; I mysteries, seven have been trans- crimes are included in the narrative
the dying gasps of apartheid in South guess the others are all in too much of a lated into English. The two missing voice: they too count as people with
Africa. Part of the reason for reading hurry, or else they live in places where ones are a 1994 book called The Man interior lives. And Kurt Wallander
Mankell obviously lies in his penetrat- you can easily catch a cab or the sub- Who Smiled (my Swedish informantseems to share this vision, in that he
ing social and political vision. He occu- way. Wallander is not slow, but he's assures me that the original title sounds
more than once finds himself sympa-
pies a larger world than ours (than methodical. When he's on a case, he'll as strange as this English rendering)thizing with the craziest and most dam-
mine, anyway: he spends part of each often work halfway through the night and a final volume that the Germans aged of the murderers he's caught.
year in Sweden and the rest directing a and still be at work by seven the next call Wallander's First Case and Other
theater company in Mozambique), and morning. (The books are very precise Tales, though the Swedish title is sim-
he is able to make a great deal of what Y OU CAN READ the Wallander books
about reporting the time of day and the ply The Pyramid. Perhaps we will even-
he observes in that world. But to rest day of the week.) There are occasional tually get these two as well, but don't in any order you choose, which is
the praise for the Kurt Wallander series moments of sudden tension, shoot-outs what I did the first time around. As
let their absence prevent you from jump-
entirely on this largeness would be to and car chases and the like, but mainly ing right in with the seven we've got. mysteries they are entirely self-con-
ignore what is perhaps best about the what we do in these books is watch The translations (there are three dif-tained, and the personal material is
books: their rueful, tender attention to Wallander think. ferent translators) are unobtrusive, andrecapitulated often enough for out-
daily detail. The detective form has always been that is a great virtue. In fact, I am siders to catch up. Even on your first
The books are compulsively readable, well suited to showing us thought tempted to say that the writing in theexposure to a Wallander novel, you
but that is not because they pack one processes-look at Sherlock Holmes- Wallander books is itself unobtrusive. I will soon learn the names of
wallop after another. On the contrary, but Henning Mankell goes a step fur- am not sure what it would mean to Wallander's regular colleagues, t
part of what makes them so easy to ther. Thought, in Mankell's hands, is describe a mystery novel as well-writtentus of his relationship with his
sink into is the relative leisureliness of not entirely something logical or ration- time Latvian girlfriend, the nat
on the sentence level; it could easily sig-


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the current job held by his daughter comings and feels himself slipping
Linda, and the fact that his elderly behind. Computers, for instance, have
father, a painter, has spent a lifetime taken over the police station, and
executing a series of nearly identical Wallander is the only one who still
sunset landscapes, some with a grouse doesn't know how to use them. The
and some without. crimes he has to deal with have become
But if you start with Faceless Killers more impersonal, more violent, and
and work your way chronologically more widespread. In the course of the
forward to Firewall, you will get some- seven years and seven books, one col-
thing else besides. As with the Martin league, a reliable if somewhat dull and
Beck mysteries, you will be treated to under-appreciated officer, has been
the unfolding of a life over time. In the murdered; another, who started out as a
first novel, Wallander is forty-two. He promising, fresh-faced cadet, has turned
has been separated from his wife for out to be an ambitious back-stabber. So
only a few months, his daughter is Wallander, always a bit of a loner, now
barely speaking to him, and he is just has fewer people than ever to confide Master of Fine Arts in
beginning to worry about his bad eat- in. On the other hand, he has grown

Creative Writing
ing habits, his loneliness, his disillusion closer to the one female detective in his
with police work, and the other con- squad-he is becoming her Rydberg, it
cerns that will increasingly plague him seems-and his daughter, now on cor-
over the long term. Rydberg, the old dial terms with him, is talking about
police detective who taught Wallander joining the police herself. So there is, if
how to think, is still alive in Faceless not hope, at any rate a future. Over more than six decades of steady innovatio
Killers, though he is already dying of Henning Mankell, having created this The New School has sustained a vital center for
cancer; in subsequent volumes he paragon of quotidian survival, seems
becomes a ghostly presence whose anxious to distance himself from Kurt
creative writing. The tradition continues with our
helpful ideas Wallander repeatedly tries Wallander. "If we met, we'd never get MFA in Creative Writing, offering concentrations
to conjure up. on," he recently told an interviewer
By the time we get to Firewall, it is from The Guardian. "I'd prefer to meet
in fiction, poetry, nonfiction and writing for
1997 and Kurt Wallander is fifty years Sherlock Holmes. Wallander has a children. Study writing and literature with The
old. He has met, spent four complicat- strange attitude to women. He is lazy in
ed years with, and broken up with his personal life." But then he adds, as if
New School's renowned faculty of writers, critics,
Baiba Liepa, the girlfriend from Riga. disturbed by it, "Women readers adore editors and publishing professionals.
His old father has died, but not before him. Perhaps they sense he is needy.
taking an important final trip to Rome What interests me is the way he is
with him. Wallander himself is by now thinking. You can have six or seven
suffering from diabetes but still can't pages when that's all he is doing." Faculty 2003-2004: Jeffery Renard Allen, Hilton Als,
seem to control what he eats. A couple Perhaps that's what interests the women
Jonathan Dee, Elaine Equi, David Gates, David Hajdu,
of longtime friends-the prosecutor Per readers, too. Adoration, in any case,
Akeson, a childhood acquaintance does not seem the appropriate word Fanny Howe, Shelley Jackson, Zia Jaffrey, Hetti Jones,
named Sten Widen-have given up here. We have enough literary figures
James Lasdun, David Lehman, Phillip Lopate, Harry
their jobs and taken off for exciting who arouse our strong passions, the
new lives in distant places; Wallander kinds of characters who flame up with a Mathews, Pablo Medina, Honor Moore, Maggie
envies them their freedom but knows brief intensity and die before their nov- Nelson, Dale Peck, Robert Polito, Liam Rector,
he will stay where he is. Though he isels are over. Sometimes-maybe espe-
proud of his professional achievements, cially in these times-we just need Sapphire, Helen Schulman, Tor Seidler, Dani Shapiro,
he is more than ever aware of his short- someone who can endure. D
Laurie Sheck, Darcey Steinke, Benjamin Taylor, Abigail
Thomas, Paul Violi, Susan Wheeler, Stephen Wright

Visiting Faculty: Ai, Martin Asher, Susan Bell, Frank
Dominion for Claire Bidart, Deborah Brodie, Margaret Gabel, Vivian
Gornick, Glen Hartley, Richard Howard, Dave
Johnson, Thomas Mallon, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd
Within a dumpster cauldron
The firemen reach her before
Schwartz, Jon Scieszka, Jason Shinder, Ira Silverberg,
The arson's flames can feast Tom Sleigh
On her spiked hair, her welts,
Her platinum belly chain.
Another corpse surfaces Director: Robert Polito
From the haze of Master Street
On a late September night.

Memory can be a caught Fellowships and financial aid available. Accepting
Breath against the forgotten, applications for Fall 2004.
Lines sprayed in paint,
Even pins stabbed in maps.
To learn more about this program and
I knew her in a plaid dress
And white blouse in the Fall
upcoming information sessions
Of seventh grade. She bent Call: 800-862-5039 code CWo8
To fold her woolen socks
With her torso tensed and holding www. nsu. newschool. edu/writing
Its linen-stretched air
Until she straightened and sighed,
A young swimmer preparing New School University
For the underworld's pull.
V The New School
Greenwich Village, New York
-David Livewell

WINTER 2004 15

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