Category Archives: Mankell Henning

After the Fire: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is the Swedish author’s final novel. After the Fire is a far cry from the Wallander crime series, and yet the novel, which at times conveys a strange dream-like quality also concerns crimes. This time, however, the emphasis is on aging and coming to terms with one’s life and actions.

69-year-old retired surgeon Fredrik Wellin lives on an island in the house that used to belong to his grandparents. Fredrik lives a solitary life, and he likes it that way. His only regular visitor is the postman, Jansson, and Fredrik’s daughter, Louise, who keeps her father at arm’s length, occasionally comes to visit. Independent and private, she stays in her caravan which was moved to the island on a cattle ferry. Fredrik suffers from high blood pressure, worries about his heart, and self-medicates. Perhaps some of Fredrik’s desire for solitude can be explained by his retirement which occurred in disgrace: he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman. And so he returned to the island, to the house in which he was born, to live out his days until his death.

After the Fire

Asleep one night, Fredrik is woken up by a bright light. Realizing that his house is on fire, he manages to escape grabbing two left boots on the way out of the door. The house is completely destroyed, and Fredrik, who moves into his daughter’s caravan, soon finds himself suspected of arson. Suddenly his life isn’t private anymore.

After the Fire is not a fast-paced novel. Mankell takes his time unpacking his story, building slowly on atmosphere, events in the area’s harsh past, and strange, eerie events. Even a childhood excursion when Fredrik went fishing with his grandfather evokes memories of his grandfather bludgeoning a swimming deer. Fredrik’s island is near a former fishing, now summer resort town, and the story takes place when the visitors have left and just the locals remain. The locals are a strange bunch: including the mysterious Oslovski, a woman with a glass eye who claims to be Polish and then later became a Swedish citizen.

Sometimes she disappeared for several months and then one day she would be back. As if nothing had happened. She moved around like a cat in the night. 

Most of the characters in the book are strange, and this raises the question: do strange people move to this area to escape the burden of suburbia, or do they become strange in this remote, harsh landscape? A bit of both, I suspect. The landscape is unforgiving: bitter winds, the sea that freezes only to crack and swallow unfortunate victims in the shallows, the perch have disappeared, the quarries have closed. Nature is relentless and unbeatable:

I drove down a steep hill, and then the trees began to thin out. I passed a few houses by the side of the road; some were empty, dilapidated, while others were perhaps still occupied. I stopped the car again  and got out. No movement, not a sound. The forest had crept right up to the houses, swallowing the rusty tools. the overgrown meadows. 

One of the only ‘normal’ characters here is the attractive newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, and before long, Fredrik has designs on this woman, decades his junior, designs, which while incongruous on one level, also show his loneliness and desire for female companionship.

Fredrik’s daughter, the prickly Louise, a daughter whose existence he only learned of when she was an adult, arrives on the island, and while the traditional role would be for her to help her father pick up the pieces of his life, her short stay only brings friction and raises some uncomfortable questions.

After the Fire is an interesting, and at times slow, melancholy read. We land in the book at the end of Fredrik’s life, and pieces of information are gradually parceled out, so that we put together the puzzle of Fredik’s psychology. He acknowledges feeling remorse for chopping off the wrong arm of a patient, but add to that picture his wife, Harriet “who made her way across the ice using her wheeled walker, some years go” and who died on the island. Add a father who wasn’t told that he had a daughter until that child grew into adulthood. Then add the bizarre relationship between Fredrik and Louise–at one point he spies through the caravan window while his daughter is half dressed as if catching her in a private moment will reveal the secrets of her life that she refuses to share. Through the story Henning Mankell argues for the relentless of Nature and our human attempts to subvert it, and yet there’s another strain here: the immutability of human nature.

Review copy

translated by Marlaine Delargy

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Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

“It again occurred to Wallander that a change was taking place in Sweden.”

A friend sent me Faceless Killers, the first Kurt Wallander mystery from Swedish author Henning Mankell. Mankell is poised to become much more widely read in North America thanks to the US release of Wallander, a DVD featuring Mankell’s fictional detective and starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role.

When I arrive at an author who has produced a number of series novels, I prefer to start at the beginning, if possible, and in the case of Mankell’s lonely detective, Wallander, this first novel introduces a forty-something, divorced, lonely, out-of-shape and overweight detective.

The novel begins in a remote area of Sweden when an elderly farmer finds that his equally elderly neighbour, Johannes Lovgren has been beaten and tortured to death, and his wife, Maria, is dying. Wallander and his detectives arrive on the scene and are horrified by the violence used against this elderly couple. With very few clues, the investigation begins, and Wallander quickly discovers that Johannes Lovgren led a secret life that may have led to his death.

faceless killersFaceless Killers begins strongly, but Wallander’s dogged pursuit of the killers is derailed when someone leaks that a ‘foreigner’ may be responsible for the brutal murders. Right wing groups fed up with Sweden’s open door policy to asylum seekers decide to take matters into their own hands and threaten to begin killing refugees in retribution. While this sub plot serves as an excellent segue into Sweden’s domestic troubles, it also subsumes the murder of the Lovgrens. When Wallander turns his attention back to the murder of the Lovgrens, the crime has become secondary instead of remaining in the foreground.

With this loss of momentum, the tale then stalls right along with the murder investigation. As a result, when the Lovgren murders are finally solved, there’s an almost anticlimactic feeling.

Wallander is an interesting character, and certainly strong enough to support a series of novels. Lonely and career-driven, he keeps hours that are contraindicated to any sort of possible relationship and his eating habits leave a lot to be desired. While Wallander struggles in his professional life with colleagues and bureaucracy, in his personal life his relationship with his father is problematic. Wallander’s father, sinking into dementia faces his son with bitter recriminations at every meeting, and the result is that Wallander’s half-hearted attempts, ill-formed by vague notions of duty, peter out rapidly. And this, of course, compounds the problems in the already-troubled relationship.

One of the best features of the book is its introduction to Sweden’s refugee policy. Wallander, who keeps his opinions about immigration to himself for the most part, encounters the lackadaisical system of accounting which favours those “opportunists” who enter the country right along with the refugees. I tended to idealize Sweden, so that’s over. On another note, the country’s weather plays a prominent role in the story. Wallander is always venturing out in below-freezing temperatures for stake outs, and consequently, he’s perpetually frozen & fighting off a cold.

The first novel in any detective series serves to set the stage for further encounters. Henning Mankell effectively creates a believable character and believable crimes right along with a believable investigation. But the novel loses its steam as it leaves the initial double murders to investigate the ripple-out effects caused by right wing nut jobs. The first novel–the stage setter in a detective series is often the weakest one, so perhaps that’s true in this case. I prefer my crime novels to keep me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, and while we all know that investigations on real-life often stall and stagnate, on paper this can lose the reader’s attention and weaken the sense of urgency. As a result, while I enjoyed the novel, it was  not a riveting read as the subplots reared and took over. While I would try the second book in the series, as a series detective, Wallander wasn’t much fun to be around; I prefer Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Hector Belascoaran and Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano–fictional characters who possess a lively sense of humour.

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