Murder, My Swede: Henning Mankell's Scandinavian Noir

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Winter had arrived in Skane," Henning Mankell concludes at the finish of his latest police procedural, Before the Frost. The sentence is the meteorological equivalent of Bob Dylan's ominous "It's not dark yet / But it's getting there." Yet when doesn't a polar chill slice through Skane, the southern Swedish farming province ("a Baltic Texas," Mankell suggested to me during a recent interview in New York) that contains the small industrial and resort city of Ystad? That locale is the setting for the Swedish writer's nine Inspector Kurt Wallander novels, including this most recent variation, which features Wallander and his daughter, Linda. Whatever the season, the blustery vistas of Mankell's fiction resonate metaphysical, even moral, desolation. "Grey mud, grey trees, grey sky," as an old landscape painter observes in The Dogs of Riga, the second installment in the Wallander cycle. "Greyest of all are the people."

Mankell refurbishes the familiar notion of noir as secret history via a cunning international twist. From Dashiell Hammett through Chester Himes and Charles Willeford, and on to James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, crime novels inscribed a black-mirror twentieth-century America far more dishonest and bloody than the country as officially chronicled. In Europe, despite writers like Georges Simenon and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the push for a covert historical reckoning tended to surface in espionage fiction--Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, John Le Carre. Mankell's forte is to entangle the two traditions, and his stubborn fixation is on the convergence of crime and politics. Much as all politics once were famously local, from now on all crimes will be global.

Although the plots may circle back to Africa during the early '60s or Jonestown in 1978, Mankell's novels chart a devastating time line across the '90s: The vicious, racially sensational murders that open Faceless Killers occur in January 1990, and Before the Frost culminates around September 11, 2001. Through the escalation of violent crime--often crime against society--the surfeit of drugs and guns, and the hostility to immigration and refugees in rural Skane, Mankell plumbs the crumbling Swedish welfare state. "That's changing fast," Wallander remarks in Faceless Killers. "Soon the entire Swedish countryside will be nothing but suburbs of the big cities. There were no narcotics here 20 years ago.... But the differences between the big cities and the countryside have been almost erased.... The open borders and all the ferries coming in are like candy for the underworld."

Yet organized crime isn't so much the riddle here; rather it's the pervasive Swedish vacancy. As Wallander concludes in The Fifth Woman: "He knew quite well what the explanation was. The Sweden that was his, the country he had grown up in, that was built after the war, was not as solid as they had thought. Under the surface was quagmire. Even back then the high-rise buildings that had been erected were described as 'inhuman.' How could people who lived there be expected to keep their 'humanity'? Society had grown cruel. People who felt they were unwanted or unwelcome in their own country, reacted with aggression. There was no such thing as meaningless violence. Every violent act had a meaning for the person who committed it."

On the Baltic Sea, close by Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, Wallander's Ystad proves a sort of coastal border town for what Mankell styled in our interview as "the new kinds of criminality" that have flowed into Western Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The novels are especially alert to the intricacies of racism, East-bloc-refugee criminals, state-controlled crime in Central Europe, overlapping political and criminal elites, and the use of accusations of organized crime to discredit national movements. Twice in The Dogs of Riga Wallander actually travels to Latvia, but thanks to globalization and the financial idiosyncrasies of the New Europe, the international thugs mostly come to him. …