My education in Scandinavian crime fiction continues! After I expressed my doubts about Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, I received some very helpful advice in the comments thread. In particular, Litlove suggested the Wallander books participate in a peculiarly European mood of melancholia (about which, she rightly inferred, I am largely ignorant) and a literary tradition of what she, um, invitingly described as “ugly, grinding prose, empty, bleak, futile.” And Dorian, who added the nice term “effaced personality” to our conversation about how Wallander is characterized, noted that Mankell’s series has an important antecedent in the Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. If I had been reading Mankell solely for pleasure, I might not have felt obligated to do the extra work of adjusting my reading framework to take these contexts into account, even though in principle I agree that good reading requires situating the book appropriately. I was reading Mankell in part as a professional, though, so I felt I did need to try a little harder to understand what he was up to–and boy, am I glad I did, not just as a teacher/scholar but as a reader. Three books into the Martin Beck series, I am thoroughly enjoying them, and I’m already feeling as if I will read Mankell much better (more aptly, more appreciatively) when I turn to The Fifth Woman, which is waiting here on my desk.
Why am I liking the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books so much better than Faceless Killers? One likely answer is that I’ve already fine-tuned my expectations, so that the features they share with Mankell’s first Wallander novel are more familiar and comfortable. Among these I would include the bleak (grinding, empty, futile) atmosphere–including both the literal atmosphere of cold, wet, miserable winter (as Jonathan Franzen says in his introduction to The Laughing Policeman, the “weather inevitably sucks”) but also the moral and emotional atmosphere, which is grim in a resigned, routine way. There’s also the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting characteristic of a police procedural, where every lead has to be laboriously pursued, every interview methodically conducted. No snazzy locked-room mysteries, these, no death-by-icicle or orangutang, no brilliant ratiocination leading up to a triumphant revelation scene. In these books, crime is a sordid business, no matter which side of the law you are on. No wonder everyone drinks so much–or tries to (in the Beck books at least, the more you are looking forward to your aquavit, the more likely it is the phone will ring and tear you away from it).
To some extent, I would say too that the prose in the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books has the same somewhat clunky quality I objected to Faceless Killers. Those of us who know no Swedish (I’m guessing that covers all readers of this blog!) can’t know how far this is an effect of translation, of trying to capture the cadence of another language in English. There are some tics in the Beck books that do suggest that there’s something deliberate about it, something purposefully exotic, if you like. One small detail that stands out for me is the recurrent reference to ‘Martin Beck’ where I would expect the surname alone, e.g. “Martin Beck looked disbelievingly at Kollberg,” 200 pages in. That’s just the tiniest little bit jarring, as you read along; it lets you know you aren’t quite on your home turf. But more generally, I found Faceless Killers flat, whereas I am finding the Beck books dry–in a good way. They are almost as tersely declarative, but there’s a momentum to the language that I enjoy, and also there’s a wonderful streak of humor, sometimes sardonic, other times more flat-out comical (as with the two beat cops Kvant and Kristiansson–”Ask a policeman,” they helpfully tell a confused woman who asks them for directions).
I haven’t yet seen quite the scope of social criticism attributed to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the prefaces provided to my editions–one by Mankell himself, another by Val McDermid, another, as I mentioned, by Franzen. Franzen calls the series “a ten-volume portrait of a corrupt modern society; Mankell says “the authors had a radical purpose in mind … to use crime and criminal investigations as a mirror of Swedish society.” I have seen enough, though, to believe that the critique already apparent accumulates over the remaining seven books–and especially in The Laughing Policeman (with its anti-Vietnam rallies and its complacently self-interested corporate villain) I can anticipate how it might proceed. Mankell writes that the authors never intended “to write crime stories as entertainment” and he points to Ed McBain as an inspiration for them, someone who showed how to use “crime novels to form the framework for stories containing social criticism.” McDermid highlights the difference between the Beck books and the “golden age” procedurals of the 1930s, set in a world in which “a bent cop is almost unthinkable; an incompetent one only a little less so.” I was actually surprised that none of these discussions mentioned the possible influence of hard-boiled detective novels: to be sure, one point of these is that their protagonist is not part of the official law enforcement system, but someone like Sam Spade moves precisely in a world of near-universal corruption (or, sometimes worse, incompetence) which very much includes the police. I mentioned the noir atmosphere of McBain’s Cop Hater, and I think there’s something of the same perspective–though illuminated by the flickering flourescent lights of bureaucracy, rather than the foggy fitfulness of street lights–in these bleak cop novels.
As for the cases, well, I didn’t like the graphic violence and sensational bursts of action in Faceless Killers. Two of the Beck novels I’ve read so far also turn on quite violent crimes, and particularly in Roseanna, the details are unrelentingly specific. Having read McBain’s comments about facing up to violence while still trying not to be “salacious” about it, I can see a similar principle at work in the Beck books, though I think the authors flirt with danger in the way they linger over the details of the sexual crimes and, especially, seem preoccupied with women’s sexual histories, or with women who are “too” sexually assertive or demanding. There are only rare cases of women who are something other than nagging/disappointed wives at home, or ‘whores’ shading into victims: here too, perhaps, some fruitful consideration might be given to the influence of hard-boiled novels, or perhaps this is just another reflection of the hyper-masculine world of the police. The standout exception is the woman police officer who helps entrap Roseanna’s murderer…but she too ultimately must play the vamp and then becomes a victim, only to be rescued. That the belatedness of the rescuers’ arrival is caused by the same kind of stupid screw-ups that typify the world of the novels more generally adds only a little painful irony to an exploitive situation.
These remain first impressions, but I feel like I’m making progress. I’ve talked fairly often about blogging as a way of thinking in public; it’s also, wonderfully, a way of learning in public. Thanks for your help so far–feel free to keep correcting and supplementing my attempts to come to terms with this material!