Review: After the Fire by Henning Mankell

coverHenning Mankell was, I think, the first Swedish author I read and I enjoyed his standalone books as much as his Wallander series. Mankell died in 2015 and his final book, After the Fire, has recently been published. It features Fredrik Welin who appears in the 2010 novel, Italian Shoes which I haven’t read and I was a bit daunted at starting what might be a difficult book to read without the backstory of the protagonist. As it turns out, After the Fire, works perfectly well as a standalone and was a substantial and interesting read.

Welin lives alone on an island in a Swedish archipelago and wakes up one night to find his house on fire. Although he manages to save himself, he is left with only the clothes he stands in and some money in his bank account. The police suspect that the fire was started deliberately and that Welin might himself be responsible for the destruction of his property. When his daughter, Louise, returns from France to see the remains of the house, old wounds and tensions resurface as Welin struggles to rebuild his life.

I suspected that After the Fire wasn’t particularly a crime novel and, although there’s a criminal act at the heart of the book, it’s as much a novel about loss, family and fragile friendships. Welin is of an age where his friends and acquaintances are infirm or dying and he’s wondering if he has the energy to start afresh. His relationship with his daughter is a difficult read. I found Louise to be incredibly unlikable as a character and nearly stopped reading the book as she’s just so destructive and her motivations are hard to fathom. Better portrayed is Welin’s relationship with the journalist Lisa Modin and his friendship with his former postman Jansson. During the course of the story, Welin has to cope with the gap between what he wants and what others are willing to give him.

Ultimately After the Fire  is a satisfying read and left me with a sense of a life picking up. The relationships portrayed are bleak in parts and verged on the depressing which is unusual for Mankell’s writing. There’s certainly a sense of an older man coming to terms with loss and grief and I’d be interested to read of others’ responses to the story.

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Review: Henning Mankell – An Event in Autumn

An Event in AutumnFans of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books will know that the series has come to an end. Wallander, for reasons that were narrated in The Troubled Man, will investigate no more cases. However, it appears we have one last story. According to the book’s afterword, An Event in Autumn was originally written for a Dutch publisher to give away to purchasers of their crime novels. It’s not really a novella, more a longish short story but it is, nevertheless, very nice to revisit Wallander’s world.

The now ageing Wallander has always dreamt of owning a house in the countryside around Ystad. His colleague, Martinsson, tells him about a dilapidated house that he has inherited and which Wallander might want to visit with a view to purchasing. However, while inspecting the garden, Wallander discovers a skeletal hand and the police dig soon reveals the presence of two bodies. All the evidence suggests that the victims have been in the ground for a long time, so Wallander is forced to go back decades in time to discover the origins of the tragedy.

While reading An Event in AutumnI couldn’t help thinking that it would have made an excellent full length novel. The story reminded me a little of Colin Dexter’s Morse book, The Wench is Dead It was not only the historic aspect to the narrative but also the part played by Wallander. He’s always been a character who is fails to take his own health seriously. But in this short tale, there’s a foreshadowing of the trouble that comes in the final book.

There’s a decent plot and it’s a shame it wasn’t given the opportunity to open out in Mankell’s trademark way. There could have been plenty of twists and turns before we reached the final conclusion but the length of the story didn’t allow this. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable both for the glimpses into fifties Swedish attitudes and also for the descriptions of the wonderful Scanian countryside that we got when Wallander visited his father in earlier books.

Wallander fans will have already read the story, I’m sure. There’s an interesting essay at the back of the book by Mankell which confirms that this is it. There are no more Wallander tales and we really have reached the end.

Thanks to Harvill Secker for my review copy. The translation was by Laurie Thompson.

Review: Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

A recent review by José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot blog of ‘Cop Killer’, the ninth book in the Martin Beck series written by Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö prompted me to start the first book in the series. Published in 1965, Roseanna influenced a generation of crime writers and the paperback copy I bought featured an introduction by Henning Mankell who recalled the impact of reading it at the time.

Roseanna is the story of a murdered girl fished out of the Göta canal in the Swedish city of Motala. Detective Inspector Martin Beck is called from Stockholm to assist with the murder investigation but is hampered by difficulties in identifying the victim. The case moves at a snails pace as first the detective tries to identify the girl and then discover her murderer. The victim has been sexually assaulted and strangled and through painstaking police work the culprit brought to justice.

I found the book an engrossing read and was struck by how influential the writing must have been on a generation of Scandinavian crime writers. It’s a police procedural and parts of the investigation reminded me of the books of George Simenon’s Maigret where a dogged persistence in the pursuit of justice overcomes numerous obstacles. The character of Martin Beck cuts a figure similar to Maigret, although he is far gloomier and troubled by various illnesses and a depressing home life. Minutiae of both the investigation and domestic details are narrated in a neutral non-descriptive tone, and results in a picture of Swedish society in the mid sixties gradually taking shape.

In many respects the period in which the book was set dictates the pace of the narrative. In a time before the internet or fax machines, information takes days to be transmitted across continents and the investigation creaks on at painfully slow rate. But the method of the murder could be right of an episode of ‘The Killing’ such is the timeless nature of violence against women. I was impressed by how the character of the victim, Roseanna McGraw, comes clearly through the narrative via transcripts of interviews and how non-judgemental the investigation is involving a victim who might be considered promiscuous in Swedish society at that time.

An excellent book and luckily I have another nine in the series to read.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Reactions to Reading, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and Reviewing the Evidence.

Location, location, location

I’ve been thinking a lot about the settings of crime novels recently. I think this is partly because I have recently read so many books where the location of the crime has seemed as crucial to the book as the plot. I’ve just finished Lawrence Block’s excellent A Drop of the Hard Stuff for example which revisits an old case of the detective Matt Scudder and contrasts present day New York to the city of the early eighties. Block’s Matt Scudder thrillers are imbued with the spirit of New York and those of us who have read his books for years have seen the city change through the writer’s work. Likewise, I finished Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man over the summer. The nearest I’ve been to Ystad is Malmo although I would love to go there one day as Mankell’s books have brought the town alive to me. And it’s not just old favourites. Cold Justice by Katherine Howell, recommended by Bernadette at http://reactionstoreading.com/ made me think nostalgically of my visit to Sydney a couple of years ago. And these literary references can develop a life of their own. Oxford runs Inspector Morse tours, Shrewsbury has a Brother Cadfael trail and Edinbugh a two-hour Rebus walk.

But there is something to be said for the fictional place too. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and the village of St Mary Mead I can envisage in my head. Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham is less easy for me to explore geographically but I can identify the type of Sussex town she is referencing. And Peter Robinson’s Eastvale seems to embody all those North Yorkshire towns with their cobbled squares and undulating surrounding countryside. I suppose the advantage of fictional places is that you can shape the place to fit the action. If you need a bridge, invent one. A church with a crooked spire? Put one in the north of the village. And these fictional places aren’t just small. Sue Grafton’s Santa Theresa is a sizable city although I’m not sure how closely it resembles the real life Santa Barbara.

So which do I prefer? I suppose I would have to say genuine locations mainly I suppose as they can make a book come alive. But I suspect my teenage years reading Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell have left me with an abiding affection for the invented place.