Crime Novel Excerpts: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell
Henning Mankell

Just finished Henning Mankell’s Firewall (1998, trans. 2002), in the now-languishing Kurt Wallander police procedural series set in Ystad, Sweden. I think his books suffer from translation — over and over we read fragments like “It would have to wait” which might be rendered in a variety of ways in one’s native language — but they are engaging, interesting, and quite Girardian, imo., particularly because they include the killers’ pov, which gives the reader a glimpse from the inside of the workings of rivalry, mimesis, hero-worship, revenge, envy, jealousy, an us vs. them mentality, victimage, need for affirmation, etc., as does the part of the story told from Wallander’s pov, too.

In the three books I’ve read so far, the killers all seem to have a deep need for approval (which has not been met) and a belief that what they are doing is divinely ordained, if not by a God then by fate. They believe they are absolutely right, and they act with the confidence, daring and pride that that belief gives them.

A few excerpts from Firewall:

Two teen girls, ages 19 and 14, have brutally murdered a man with a hammer and a knife, and they show no remorse whatsoever. Wallander and officer Höglund (who is female) are talking about it:

Höglund: “Maybe what should surprise us is that something like this didn’t happen sooner. … Women aren’t needed in the workforce anymore. That era is over.”

Wallander: “But that doesn’t explain why young girls have started assaulting taxi drivers.”

Höglund: “There has to be something more to it that we don’t know. Neither of us believes in the idea that people are born evil.”

Wallander: “I try to hang on to that belief, though at times it’s a challenge.”

Höglund: “Just look at the magazines these young girls are reading. Now it’s all about beauty again, nothing else. How to get a boyfriend and find meaning for life through his interests and dreams, that sort of thing.”

Wallander: “Weren’t they always like that?”

Höglund: “No. Think about your own daughter. Didn’t she have her own ideas about what to do with her life?”

Wallander knew she was right. But he shook his head doubtfully anyway. “I just don’t know why they attacked Lundberg.”

Höglund: “But you should. Young girls are slowly starting to see through the messages society sends them. When they figure out they aren’t needed, that in fact they are superfluous, they react just as violently as boys. And go on to commit crimes, among other things.”

Obviously, if this were the only social analysis, the book would feel simplistic.  In fact, we later find out that there was a stronger, personal  motivation for this particular crime.  What I like about these books is that there’s a lot of thinking aloud about why people (criminals, parents, bystanders, cops, etc.) do what they do, about the intricacies of relationships, about what motivates people — particularly Wallander thinking about his own actions and motivations, and often feeling mystified; and taken together, it feels quite satisfying and thought-provoking, not an easy psychobabble answer.

And, I think there is something important in the suggestion here that when we feel marginalised and unnecessary, we become more willing to take on the role of ‘the chosen one,’ the victim of injustice who now wields power over others.

Wallander is interviewing a dog-walking woman who might be a witness:

“‘Your willingness to speak to the police on this matter is greatly appreciated,’  he said. ‘Especially given that it is a Sunday.’

“He marvelled at the stilted phrases that had just left his mouth. How could he still sound so dry and impersonal after all these years?

“‘If the police need any information one may have, surely it is one’s duty to try to be of assistance.’

She’s even worse than I am, he thought with a sigh. It’s like watching a bad film from the thirties.”

I like the way he observes his interactions as he’s participating in them.

We’re privvy to the thought of the mastermind killer:

“He was most vulnerable during these hours before sunrise, left to the dark and his own memories. He could get worked up over old wrongs that had been done to him. It was only when he focused his thoughts on the revenge he was planning that he could calm himself again.”

Wallander, out on a dating-service first date:

“Wallander felt self-conscious. Ever since he was a teenager, he had been under the impression that he looked best in profile. Therefore he now turned his chair so that he sat sideways to the table.

“‘Don’t you have enough room for your feet?’ she asked. ‘I can pull the table over, if you like?’

“‘Not at all,’ Wallander said. ‘I’m fine.’

“Wallander noticed she was very direct in her approach, in direct contrast to himself. He was still mostly concerned over whether or not to appear in profile.”

This is such a usual thing, where it would be almost impossible to guess what is motivating the other person to take some action, or not, without knowing them as well as they know themselves.

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