Before the Frost

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

A number of articles published in 2005 noted the flourishing of a new subgenre: novels inspired by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Some of these books make explicit reference to those events and their aftermath; in others, the link is implicit. Widely cited examples from 2005 include Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Ian McEwan’sSaturday.

One such novel that was missed in many surveys of this trend is Henning Mankell’s Before the Frost. For many years, Mankell has divided his time between his native Sweden and Africa, where he is a theater director in Maputo, Mozambique. Mankell has published in many genres including plays, novels, fiction for children and young adults. He has also compiled a “book of memories” from Africans dying of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), mainly for their children to read when they are older.

Mankell, however, is best known for a series of books featuring police inspector Kurt Wallander. Based in the town of Ystad, in the southernmost region of Sweden, the series began with the novel Mördare utan ansikte (1991; Faceless Killers, 1997). Altogether, the series consists of eight novels and a collection of stories. To the frustration of American readers, the books have not been translated in the order in which they originally appeared. The last of the novels to be translated into English, Mannen som log, published in Sweden in 1994, is chronologically the fourth book in the series. It appeared in Great Britain in the fall of 2005 as The Man Who Smiled and was slated for release in the United States in 2006. Only the collection of the stories remains to be translated.

In many ways, Kurt Wallander could be called a typical protagonist of police and detective fiction. Like many of his British and American counterparts today (but in marked contrast to the typical fictional detectives of an earlier era), Wallander ages from book to book; his character develops over time. Divorced, a bit overweight, prone to drink too much and imperfect in many other ways, he is also an extraordinarily resourceful investigator and a compassionate, deeply sympathetic man. While he is typical of his fictional generation, Wallandar is also distinctive enough, individual enough, to appeal in a way few characters do. He seems to live outside the pages of books.

Although the character of Wallander is central to the appeal of the series, Mankell places a good deal of emphasis on the team of investigators who are Wallander’s colleagues, and on his relations with his superiors, so that the books have some of the flavor of the classic police procedural. Several of Wallander’s colleagues are gradually filled out as characters, and the give-and-take among these various personalities is of greater interest to Mankell than the details of forensic science (though the author has taken care to do his forensic homework).

Mankell also uses the detective novel to dramatize and reflect on contemporary issues in Swedenfor instance, the tension provoked by immigration to what has heretofore been an exceptionally homogenous society. The larger context of such conflicts is the self-assessment that Sweden has been forced to undertake as bigger and bigger cracks have emerged in the nation’s carefully managed facade of enlightened prosperity.

In Sweden, the Wallander series has been enormously popular, spawning television series and film adaptations. The books have been translated into many languages and have been particularly popular in Germany. After nine Wallander books, however, Mankell decided to make a departure. He created a new detective character, Stefan Lindman, a younger policeman in another region of Sweden. Lindman was introduced in a novel titled Danslärarens återkomst (2001; The Return of the Dancing Master, 2004).

With Before the Frost, Mankell returns to Wallander’s stomping grounds but adds a couple of twists. Like many of his fictional contemporaries, Wallander is shown over the course of the series relating to various people in his life: his former wife, his aging father, his daughter. While the detective plays an important role in Before the Frost, the focus is on his daughter Linda, who in an earlier book had expressed her desire to enter the police force. Wallander’s relationship with Linda has been difficult, in part because they are more similar to each other than either one is willing to...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2005): 828.

The Economist 372 (October 2, 2004): 84.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 24 (December 15, 2004): 1168.

Library Journal 130, no. 3 (February 15, 2005): 124.

New Statesman 133 (September 6, 2004): 54-55.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (January 23, 2005): 21.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 5 (January 31, 2005): 52.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 29, 2004, p. 24.