Reading Henning Mankell’s Wallander in shorter stories provides an interesting perspective into what makes the detective work—and and more importantly how Manning himself approaches him. This collection includes two long stories: the opener, here titled ‘Wallander’s First Case’, is a novella, and the title story, ‘The Pyramid’, which ends the book, could have easily been published alone as a short novel. Mankell wrote all these stories to answer questions about what happened to Wallander before he debuted in 1990’s Faceless Killers, and they were originally collected in Swedish in 1998. He explains in an introduction that is typically precise but somewhat less reticent than his interviews, that it wasn’t until after those eight years had passed that he came up with the phrase which he would have used retrospectively to subtitle the Wallander series: ‘Novels About The Swedish Anxiety’.
Without using the A word, this confirms what many of us have thought, and the link which Mankell has also explained between his books and the Sjowall/Wahloo Martin Beck series.
At times in these stories he tries to make the sense of collective angst rather too clear: at one point commenting on the fractured walls of society, and in another at the way, a generation before, Ystad would have been free of the effects of crime from the cities. There’s a reflection of the novels too, since Mankell has always had fun with the sense of Ystad as a crime capital: remember the cash machine in the town square that was about to cue world wide armageddon? ‘The Pyramid’ is a classic case in point: an international drug cartel run by two spinster sisters who otherwise sell buttons and thread? But Mankell balances the unreal nature of that situation with the tale of Wallander having to rush to Egypt to get his father out of jail: the cantankerous old Swede has tried to fulfill his dream of climbing a pyramid, and been arrested. It’s as surreal a scene as I can recall in any crime novel, and it helps put this Christmas tale into perspective.
‘Wallander’s First Case’ is the best of the lot, in part because knowing much of the story to follow, one can see the seeds planted carefully. His new romance with Mona is already suffering from his devotion to his job, a devotion which will pay off in his promotion to detective. And it will also stoke her fears; because he is seriously wounded—the original title of the story was ‘The Stab’— and that personal anxiety will later be magnified as their relationship flounders on its lack of communication.
In his shorter stories, Mankell is often making a character point. This is signalled particularly strongly by the original title of ‘The Man With The Mask’, which was called ‘The Divide’ and emphases not only the relationship between Wallander and the man who holds him hostage in a convenience store robbery, but also between Mona and him, she being the outsider who can never understand what he has gone through. A couple of stories end in suicides, which is a particularly Swedish way of dealing with things (Americans tend to prefer taking people with them) and a couple require epilogues to explain the complications of plots that are creaky, but which Mankell is not taking too seriously; less police procedural than Swedish psychological. It’s a riveting book, that to anyone familiar with Wallander hangs together like a novel.
The Pyramid by Henning Mankell
Vintage 2009 £7.99 ISBN 978009951297