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Murder, my Swede: Henning Mankell's Scandinavian Noir.

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. In The White Lioness, the shooting of an Ystad realestate agent leads Wallander to a former KGB officer relocated to Sweden, who once trained black South Africans recruited by the Afrikaner Resistance Movement to assassinate Nelson Mandela. Even Mankell's vengeful serial killers lodge their prickly cultural agenda. In The Fifth Woman, a female Swedish Railways conductor hunts down a trio of men whose chief link is their past abuse of women. "I think I can say without any hubris," Mankell casually boasted to me, "that you would have difficulty finding novels that in a better way tried to give a description of what was going on in Europe during the 1990s."

The anti-noir Kurt Wallander--"a pretty good policeman in a medium-sized Swedish police district," as he dubs himself in The White Lioness--is a curious goad for all this ambitious noir history. Enterprising (or self-important) crime novelists customarily signal their grandness of vision by relocating the same investigator to a succession of far-flung locales; Mankell inverts this corny gambit by running multiple detectives through Ystad. Change--particularly shifts in perspective--drives and focuses the Wallander novels, the way funny hats or an amusing sidekick spur other mystery series. "Police work ultimately had to do with being able to decipher the signs of the times," Wallander says in The Fifth Woman. "To understand change and interpret trends in society." Before the Frost adds the impatient, aggressive viewpoint of Linda Wallander, a recent graduate of the Stockholm police academy, while Mankell's previous novel, The Return of the Dancing Master, introduced another Swedish police officer, Stefan Lindman, who appears here as Linda's boyfriend. From book to book Wallander is always a mobile target. Early on he voiced reactionary apprehensions about Sweden's refugee camps, but his arc is steadily to the left. Much as his politics have responded to the real-time transformation of Europe, so his personal life has evolved in real time as well: divorce; difficult, then dying, father; strained kinship with Linda; clumsy or distant crushes; muddled angers; fatigue; messy isolation.

But mostly Wallander toils away--he files reports, copies lists, looks, listens. Sometimes Mankell intimates that a good policeman resembles an artist--"They didn't teach you that at the academy?" the inspector lectures Linda in Before the Frost. "That policemen don't think anything? They only want to know. But they have to remain open to all possibilities, however unlikely. That includes something like a report about burning swans. It could turn out to be true." If a policeman, like an artist, stays "open to all possibilities," the emphasis is on working artist. Even when Wallander grieves for his impossible father, the mourning transpires, credibly, amid his job.

Mankell told me that his novels originate in "questions" and "issues." Before the Frost explores Christian fundamentalism, trailing a spiral from Jim Jones to some sadistic ritual slayings in Skane. Yet for all this topical urgency, the fiction distills startling, often grisly images that insinuate Mankell's themes in radiant miniatures--a noose around the neck of an old woman in Faceless Killers; a black finger dug from the dirt by a dog in The White Lioness; the girl who sets herself on fire in a field at the start of Sidetracked; those flaming swans, and a pair of severed hands folded in prayer, in Before the Frost.

Such images are ineradicable, the way some actions can feel irrevocable. "Nothing is over," a young woman tells Linda Wallander in Before the Frost. "I'm going to live with this for the rest of my life. I'm always going to feel something pressing around my throat."

Robert Polito's most recent book is The Selected Poems of Kenneth Fearing (Library of America, 2004). He is also the author of Savage Art: The Life of Jim Thompson (Knopf, 1995).

Seven of Henning Mankell's Inspector Kurt Wallander novels--Faceless Killers (2003), The Dogs of Riga (2004), The White Lioness (2003), Sidetracked (2003), The Fifth Woman (2004), One Step Behind (2003), and Firewall (2003)--are available in English translation from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. Before the Frost (2005) and The Return of the Dancing Master (2004) are published in the United States by the New Press.

Shooting the Piano Player looks at noir literature, writing on crime, and the fiction and film underworld.
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Title Annotation:SHOOTING THE PIANO PLAYER
Author:Polito, Robert
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Apr 1, 2005
Words:1343
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