Monday, May 03, 2010

Henning Mankell: A First Look

My sister Sally is a big fan of Henning Mankell's Swedish mysteries. She's too tactful ever to insist that I join her in this enthusiasm but I know she has a sharp and discriminating eye so it's only natural that I give him a try.

I did: I read The Dogs of Riga, his (perhaps atypical) undertaking in which his detective goes to Latvia to explore the mysteries of corruption and betrayal just as the old socialist monolith began to crumble--that is, 1991.

I enjoyed it and I suspect I'll read more, but I have to say it was a bit of a disappointment, not in the sense that it delivered so little, but that it promised so much. "Wallander"--one hesitates to call him "inspector"--easily joins the ranks of a certain kind of iconic detective--middle aged, dumpy, self-deprecating and often dismayed (think Maigret or Brunetti or, hell, think Matt Scudder or Guy Noir). And the premise here is breathtaking: search for secrets in a land of secrets, or more particularly, in a land that is just beginning to know itself.

The trouble is that Mankell just doesn't know his Latvia that well--not nearly well enough to engage in the granular detail that he can so readily explore in his native Sweden. The result is that after a strong start, he loses his nerve and settles for an old-fashioned shoot-em-up.

I'll go back for more because I liked the character and I get the sense that he really does know his Sweden, and aren't we all just a bit intrigued by that sleek, somewhat self-satisfied but certainly self-contained little island of Nordic sanity? I'll just have to look elsewhere for my Baltic fix.

Followup: I've seen a few moments here and there of Kenneth Branagh's video rendition of Wallander, but it just doesn't do it for me. I suppose this is because (rather than in spite of) the fact that Branagh's Hamlet is still my all-time favorite movie. I suppose the problem is that I'll just never be able to believe Branagh as introspective and diabetic. As I think of it, I wonder if it just isn't possible to translate this kind of detective onto the screen: so much of what counts about them is what goes on inside their head that there's no good "exterior" way to tell the story. For some Mankell insights on Branagh as Wallander, go here.

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