The Man Who Smiled
Henning Mankell’s series of police procedural novels about the cases of Swedish detective Kurt Wallander have attained worldwide popularity since the first book, Mördare utan ansikte (Faceless Killers, 1997), appeared in 1991. Over the next decade, he published eight more books on Wallander, ending with Pyramiden (the pyramid) in 1999. The Man Who Smiled is the eighth book in the series to be translated into English and published in the United States and the fourth in the chronological sequence of the books themselves. Mankell is a prolific author of children’s books and other novels. He splits his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he is the director of Teatro Avenida, the only professional dramatic theater in that country. Mankell is also very active in fighting AIDS and its effects on the people of Mozambique and Africa in general.
During the decade and a half since the first Wallander book came out, Mankell has topped best seller lists and won numerous awards for his portrayal of this enigmatic detective. He has established a Web site (henningmankell.com) where his fans can learn more about his career, forthcoming works, and his own views on the world he is portraying. There he sees himself as a part of the “resistance” to the “exploitation, plundering and degrading” that characterizes the world at this time.
In some respects, the Wallander series can be seen as a variant on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct concept of police procedural stories, this time set in Sweden in the 1990’s. The reader learns a great deal from Mankell’s narrative about how the Swedish police conduct their investigations, the rights that Swedish citizens do and do not possess when suspected of a crime, and the stresses that fall on police officers in that Scandinavian country. The tensions between the police and the prosecutors, as well as the difficulties between politicians and cops, police and the media, and the police and the public come out in vivid detail in Mankell’s work.
The main focus throughout the series is on the personality and professional skill of Kurt Wallander. Like other detectives in this genre who go down the mean streets of industrial societies, Wallander is a flawed investigator. In this book, he is coming off a year’s sick leave after he had to kill someone in the line of duty. In fact, the book begins with Wallander resolved to leave the police force. Such a decision would bring the series to an abrupt end. Within a few pages, Wallander is deep into a new case, back with his colleagues in the Ystad police force and once again ready to apply his talents to another mystery.
One of the strengths of Mankell’s work throughout the Wallander series is the acerbic portrayal of Swedish society that he provides through the thoughts and actions of his characters. No admirer of the way that modern Sweden has developed, Mankell brings a moralistic stance to his interpretation of what has happened to his native country. He sees a decline in ethical values, an emphasis on greed and selfishness, and a breakdown of an ordered society. As Wallander tells Ann-Britt Höglund, his female colleague, “But in our everyday work, even in an insignificant little town like Ystad, we could see a change. Crime became more frequent and more serious: different, nastier, more complicated. And we started finding criminals among people who’d previously been irreproachable citizens.” Through the eyes of Wallander and his police colleagues, a vivid portrayal of a nation in a deep spiritual crisis emerges in each of the volumes of the series.
Mankell’s critique of modern life does not end with his strictures about Sweden. He has devastating criticism about the AIDS crisis, the failure of the West in Africa, and the impact of globalization on the lives of everyday individuals. At bottom the Wallander books attack imperialism and its effects on the world through narratives about a series of criminal cases that reveal the human cost of capitalism and the pursuit of wealth. Mankell works these arguments into his book with practiced skill as he demonstrates where the modern world in his judgment has gone so far astray.
If the books were only sermons about these malevolent forces, they would not have the power that they possess to involve readers in many countries. Mankell has created in Kurt...
(The entire section is 1794 words.)