Sunday, 19 December 2010

Scandanavian Rebus

While Inspector Rebus has, to put it mildly, had something of mixed success in his translation to television (cf. John Hannah's woeful miscasting), the screen (big and small) has been much more kind to Sweden's Inspector Wallander, of whom there are already three distinct incarnations (including a recent UK production with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role). Having enjoyed these, and reasoning that film and TV producers only back sure things, I gave the biggest Rebus fan I know (C) the first of Henning Mankell's Wallander novels, Faceless Killers, as a present. So, how fares the crime genre across the North Sea?

The novel opens on a cold winter night with an elderly farmer, alerted by disconcerting calls for help, discovering a horrifying scene in the farmhouse of his old friends and neighbours. Expecting a routine, rural call-out, the middle-aged Inspector Wallander arrives to find a dead husband and his nearly lifeless wife, both victims of a brutal assault and torture. The motive for the crime is unknown, but the investigation gets its only divisive clue in the dying words of the wife, "Foreign". Leaked to the press by a junior officer, this information adds fuel to the simmering hate of Sweden's Far Right groups. As well as struggling to understand the initial murders, Wallander now has to contend with an attack on a refugee encampment, and a further racially-motivated murder of a Somali refugee. His investigation of the former crime leads him to uncover uncomfortable facts about the murdered farmer, while the latter crime draws in murky connections between a police officer and racists. And all the while Wallander has his personal demons to contend with: a failed marriage; an estranged daughter; and his elderly artist father, dismissive of his choice of career.

Much like the Rebus novels, this is solidly enjoyable genre fare. It has all the right ingredients, mixing in a perplexing initial mystery, a number of tantalising if ultimately unhelpful leads, victims that are not quite what they first seem, and a solution that reads like an entirely plausible fusion of Wallander's luck and skill. I particularly liked the fact that the investigation unfurled at a realistic pace; normally, fictional crimes are solved frenetically within days, but here the pieces take time to fall into place. The novel also does an convincing job with Wallander himself, quickly and economically establishing where he is in life, and deftly filling in his, and his family's, history. While Rebus has some rough edges, Wallander has quite a number more, and his creation as a borderline unlikeable character, with both talents and flaws, is handled well. Of course, it also helps that it's been translated with what seems a lot more care than another, much more famous, Swedish novel that I've recently read.

Comparing with Rebus is quite instructive. As another first detective novel in a long series, I think Wallander gets off to a much better start than Rebus. The latter's first outing (read pre-blog) was a rather clichéd start that, for me at least, made the cardinal error of moving Rebus from the role of investigator to that of the key to the mystery. To be fair to Rankin, when he first wrote Rebus, this plotline was probably less of a cliché than endless detective TV dramas have now made it appear. But in Faceless Killers, Mankell also gifts Wallander with a much more realistic-seeming backstory than Rebus' SAS background (and then foreground) from Knots and Crosses. This, however, also serves to make him quite a bit less sympathetic, but, straight out the box, he seems a much more three dimensional character than his Edinburgh rival did. That journey took Rebus a few more novels, but he seems to very much have gotten there from my last visit.

One minor complaint I did have with Faceless Killers is how its dénouement relies on a character with a somewhat implausibly good memory. The original murders are long cold, but a bank teller is able to pass along some key information. In Branagh's TV series, this was more plausibly (and cleverly) handled via security videos, but here it strains credulity a bit. Not seriously, but Mankell could have thought a little bit more about this critical development.

Anyway, a very good start to a series that I've certainly enjoyed on television. I suspect I'll be back here at some point before too long.

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