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Swedish exercises in crime

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

Firewall Henning Mankell

Harvill, pp.422, 14.99

Henning Mankell, the Swedish crimewriter who is the creator of Inspector Kurt Wallender, is being taken increasingly seriously: an international bestseller but also the subject of profiles in literary papers. He has already won the prestigious (British) Crimewriters’ Gold Dagger Award with Sidetracked. It seems the measure of the success of his dour, dispirited and diabetic Inspector that the last Mankell, The Return of the Dancing Master, made a feature of ignoring Wallender altogether — much as Agatha Christie created a middle-aged lady sleuth in Ariadne Oliver, sated perhaps with Poirotmania.

However, the latest Mankell offering is right back with Wallender and in my opinion all the better for it. The trouble with The Return of the Dancing Master was that the book itself was dispiriting, instead of assigning that burden to the detective himself, leaving the reader to revel in his personal crises at one remove. Wallender apart, Firewall is in fact a brilliant mystery because it plays to Mankell’s two great strengths: an uncanny ability to attack exactly the right contemporary horror story, while preserving many of the narrative techniques of earlier crimewriters.

To take the last strength first, Mankell has no hesitation in threatening the reader’s sense of security with dark figures lurking in even deeper murkiness. Unnoticed by the Inspector or potential victims, such presences simmer in the reader’s mind, sometimes for a chapter or two, as one is uneasily aware of at least one shadow unaccounted for. Not all these unseen stalkers are Swedish since the plot — as often with Mankell — has a global, specifically African, dimension and one at least is an Oriental. Passages like this therefore sent my mind irresistibly back to the 1930s works of E. Phillips Oppenheim and that menacing ‘Lascar’ who always seemed to be slinking about at dusk:

Wallender did not think to look around as he got out of his car. If he had he might have caught a glimpse of the shadow retreating into the darkness further up Runnerströms Torg …

But there is nothing wrong with such devices, and in fact the cracking pace, the numerous extremely unpleasant deaths (suicides or murders?) by such means as headlong precipitation into a ship’s propellers or frying to death on a power circuit, help to gloss over at least one fairly remarkable implausibility. I refer to Wallender’s obligatory attempt to solve his love life, perennially doomed to failure but never more so than in Firewall, where he actually entrusts his precious computer-expert to a woman he hardly knows (met via an advertisement) for protection. We, in on the secret of her background, gasp with horrified anticipation …

The presence of the computer-expert —actually a young and brilliant hacker who has recently accessed the Pentagon and gone to prison for it — is the significant heart of the story. Wallender is a man reluctantly and slowly realising that he lives in a computer age, and there may be some advantages to this. At the same time the villains, who naturally plan a hideous worldwide conspiracy, are well aware of the advantages to them and the disadvantages to everyone else. ‘I’ve never seen a case like this,’ says one of Wallender’s colleagues half way through the book with a bafflement I certainly shared at the time: ‘There’s still much we can’t account for. We don’t know why the electrical relay was placed in the morgue. We don’t know why Falk’s body was removed. I just don’t think cutting off his fingers was the driving motive.’ Read it and find out. Even if you still may not be able to give a plot summary at the end (conveniently, honour prevents me from doing so), you will have had a thoroughly gripping time.

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