Henning Mankell


The Man Who Smiled




Although they’re more saviours – nothing I write here could spoil the book more than Mankell did himself.


I might have been surprised by the bleakly detailed local colour and the damaged and vulnerable nature of our decidedly un-Chuck Norris hero (until the utterly ridiculous climax – more on that later), but I’d recently read two (superior) Peter Temple novels and was beginning to feel that every senior detective was characterised by trauma and morbid anxiety. Henning is hardly to be blamed for the similarities (this book was written before the couple of Temples I’ve reviewed), but some of the novelty of this story was lost on me because I read it afterwards.


I was happy to be friends with this book. I went along with the evocation of, I imagine (never been there), authentically Swedish characters, landscapes, temperatures and laneways, although I couldn’t relish the trainspotting ‘been there’ minutia of so many name-dropped towns and streets. It was interesting to start with Wallandar as such a frail barely functioning mess. Mankell also bothered to give a bit of individuality and interaction to his police cast. The opening investigations capably introduced various suspicious and victimised characters.


Things started coming a little undone when Mankell started relying on (disproportionately awed) responses rather than actions to convince us of Wallander’s apparently superlative skills: why are people gasping in such praise at fairly uninspired procedures? But, to grant him something, Wallander’s closer inspection of the car ‘accident’ is at least an attempt. Still, mostly we’re supposed to go along with the idea than when Wallander is meeting people he’s subtly reading all sorts of things as part of his genius, things that aren’t actually evoked by his incisive questions or explained by the narrator in terms of subtleties of things like hesitation, bluster and body language.


And we slide into a typical flaw of so many crime books and shows: I so hope it isn’t realistic that most investigations start with the detective deciding who is guilty with no evidence, and then spend the rest of their time completely focussed on trying to prove their hunch, blind to anything that might challenge their hypothesis. Hey, I’m sure it does happen sometimes, but it should not be lauded as intelligent – it shouldn’t be lauded at all.


Moreover it’s not terrible, but Mankell isn’t really that comfortable in shaping his deliberate strong female detective, nor with the aspects of forensic accounting (they are just some jolly clever young people, you know, with their ipods and twitters and such, who come up with these amazing results). Temple’s In The Evil Day is far more assured with IT, giving us more specifically interesting methods that technology may allow (although in this book his women are nothing short of fantasy: “I want a girl with great legs and a motorbike to appear from nowhere, NOW, to rescue me. Oh, and she falls totally in love with me too!” Sha-zam!).


The pace slows, Mr supposedly super intelligent isn’t coming up with any clever ideas. Perhaps some credit to Mankell for having a go at highlighting the limited resources and time pressures for investigations, but I was losing interest. Perhaps this was partly the idea – to slow things down so the end had more punch – but I was after something quite different to the utterly laughable trainwreck of the last part of the book.


It. Was. Awful.


The holes, my goodness, the great gaping holes.


I mean, sure, earlier we were treated to supposed master killers who couldn’t take out a middle-aged secretary because they thought planting a clumsily hidden mine in her garden would be more effective than, say, shooting her. Even Mankell has the good grace to have Wallander think, “… That was too unlikely, too far fetched even to be considered..”. Despite this, the method was never explained. But later on they kill someone on their private estate … and then leave the body outside for any of the staff to see. No reason. Oh, later they drag it behind a tree. ?!? They’ve just shot a bloke, they have a whole massive house, helicopters. Shovels even. No, lets just leave the body here and think about it in a day or two. This from supposedly uber-baddie puppet master ‘man who smiled’ – who, really, is the merest carbon stereotype (‘Ah, lets make the baddie a rich guy in a suit who looks all respectable and talks all condescending and posh.’ ‘Anything else – motive? Character? History? Family? Anything??’ ‘Nup. That’s it.’)


But it gets worse. Wallander, hearing about this murder, decides to, of course, go in alone (using much the same reasoning that people in horror movies use to decide to split up after the first grisly death). Not even saying, ‘call in the troops if I’m not out in an hour – it means a police officer is being held against his will in this castle that you’ve seen me walk into’. Now we descend into total farce. Wallandar gets caught, and like Batman or James Bond or Arnie or whoever, is being lead off to his immanent demise. Except he’s not supposed to Arnie or Rambo – no, the two guys leading him off are. He is supposed to be a traumatised, gun-shy, woefully out of condition ageing guy who has never had a fraction of their experience with combat; they are the highly trained and seasoned mercenaries. But – out of nowhere, and in TOTAL contradiction to the previous 9/10ths of the book – he’s suddenly Bruce Willis! With a bound he was free! He suddenly overpowers the two armed killers – how could they have suspected he might try something when they’re leading him off to the helicopter he’s just been told they’re going to throw him out of? Oh it’s OK, lines like this make perfect sense: “Wallender flung himself with all his strength at Obadia and succeeded in wresting his pistol from his grasp… Tolpin stared wide eyed at what was going on without it properly sinking in…”. Yeah, that’s those mercenaries for you – as long as you fling yourself at them ‘with all your strength’, they’ll just hand over their weapons. And their reaction to violence is to gape ‘wide eyed’ like they’ve never seen anything like this before.


What was the earlier line, “That was too unlikely, too far fetched even to be considered.”.


You said it Henning.




July 2010