NWR Issue 92

Pulp Kitchen

The UK may have no shortage of home-grown psychopaths but we are rapidly running up a trade deficit in criminologists. Lone maverick investigators are being imported in record numbers and chilly Scandinavia, for the moment, has cornered the market. Once the Nords sent us birch-veneered bookcases – then they began to arrive with Stieg Larsson et al. packing their shelves. Whodunits to the land of Sherlock Holmes? How did it happen?

Well for a start, Larsson (man and work) must be what marketing professionals (sic) beg Santa for. Here is – or can be made out to be – the crime-writing equivalent of Van Gogh: a tortured, ailing creative with the nous to die before any taint of success. He comes packing a full suit of desirables, being anti-fascist, anti capitalist, pro-feminist. Larsson was a campaigning journalist long before he became a thriller writer and only did so – according to myth – to reach a wider audience. But then so did Orwell – and even Dickens could be placed in the social didact does ripping yarns school, having more or less invented the form. But to come to the Larsson texts via the portal of this image means disappointment. The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo/Who Played With Fire/Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) was originally entitled Men Who Hate Women. So far so worthy. However, though The MT may not have flown off the shelves as The Man Who Didn’t Get Women, this is surely nearer the mark, with a female protagonist who doesn’t so much come unstuck as lack any binding agent whatsoever. All multiple piercings and hair dye, Lisbeth Salander is anticharacter, an uncooked gruel of impulse and trait, that makes Lara Croft seem as complex as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. And that device of getting down and dirty with violent sexual sadism whilst smugly attesting it’s all in agood cause was grubby back in Jacobean times – and here is no Webster. These books take bad writing into a whole new league and though the trilogy has proved a money-spinner, under the frosting is artistic rankness. Sewers built with the best of intentions still reek.

While Larsson’s fiction made the bigger splash in prize-winning terms, Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander series has quietly and steadily sold 25 million copies worldwide. And on the small screen (the medium particularly suited to police procedurals) the Wallander phenomenon looks to have a lot more mileage in it. So far, the BBC has invested in three outings for the small-town Swedish detective as a vehicle for Kenneth Brannagh. Apparently so pleased are the corporation with the result that more snowy Brannaghfests are promised. Even if you enoy the slightly bizarre juxtapositions of life in the freezer, nothing can be more freakish than this piece of casting. Only Phil Jupitus is more unlikely – but perhaps he was their second choice and at least has the advantage of cold-defying bulk. Brannagh’s is a studied, wounded, micro-Wallander perhaps aimed at distracting us from the fact that what’s on offer is Marple with swearing. When, after several acts of closely observed broodiness, he does embrace actual crime fighting, the comedy of this national treasure brandishing a gun from props cannot have been what the director aimed for. Rewritten storylines in which Mankell’s creation is still flawed but only in a more meaningful, more tragic, more – well, Brannagh type of way are also irksome.

Brannagh aside there’s always the pristine Swedish landscape to enjoy; visual metaphors picked up from the Coen Brothers can and are given fresh, European subtlety. And then there’s Ystad itself, a chocolate-box, half-timbered town, a quarter of the size of Wrexham but with a murder rate that makes Rebus’ Edinburgh look sleepy. Medieval facades are Disney bright; brutal modernist blocks on the outskirts remain ungraffitied; both open up to quaint interiors hinting at the nineteen seventies. There’s neither a Malmsten chair nor an Ikea bed-settee in shot – disconcerting. This and the woman-heavy police department remind us we are in a foreign country or at least not in Chelmsford or Caerphilly. Though it isn’t quite Sweden either.

To find the authentic Wallander in the real Mankellund you have to turn, if not straight to translations of the novels, then to Swedish-made adaptations. Krister Henriksson is much acclaimed in recent productions despite losing his on-screen Linda to the real life suicide of the actress Johanna Sallstrom. But Rolf Lassgard, the original Wallander in the first series that ran from 1995 to 2007, was Mankell’s own choice for the role and is easily the best. For a start Lassgard has the physique of a North Sea oarsman – but a Viking that has given up the disciplines of monkskewering and goat molestation and let himself go. He plays Wallander as a slow, sexy ex-berserker whose vices have all come home to roost. In ‘The Man Who Smiled’ we find him stranded against a bleak barbed wire and stunted tree backdrop whilst in his head runs the fantasy existence of Steve McQueen in Bullitt, proving this is someone who can laugh at himself long before we’re tempted. It’s seductive stuff. Shying away from the camera with a half-turn that denies us his full face, Lassgard/Wallander literally shambles through the plot armed with his intelligence (although unlike Brannagh’s version he makes huge mistakes) and a self-deprecating grin hot enough to merit its own carbon footprint. Here, we’re gulled into not disbelieving, is a real policeman, less tortured on a daily basis and more exasperated. Heroism isn’t going to figure highly but the odd impulse that turns out well is just reward for coping with a body that’s playing up and a boss taunting, ‘So it wasn’t your fault, it was the weather’s?’ But his best performance is in ‘One Step Behind’, a Gothic, ornate episode in which past and present come together and twist like a garrote tightening first upon the reputations of the dead and then on the survivors, Wallander included.

The real disappointment is the final episode. Based on a short story, ‘The Pyramid’, it is a hotch-potch of bought-in emotions and eye-popping coincidence. Even the wonderful Lassgard flounders, looking like a man who has just been let in to a terrible truth, namely that fifty-something Inspector Wallander is about to be ousted from the force for no other reason than that his creator decided to do it. This is a terrible end for such a fine, hard-working character and makes you wish Mankell had had the decency to deliver the coup de grâce in a piece of flash fiction – on holiday perhaps, our Kurt takes a mistimed peek over the Reichenbach Falls?

But what of the books? If your taste is for any of the three on-screen Wallanders you’ll want to try reading them and then – as publishers are banking on – more of the same. Stieg Larsson may have left only a sleazy next-of-kin squabble re an incomplete fourth manuscript – there was talk of the ‘propriety’ of its being completed by another writer as though it were a fragment of Love’s Labours Won – but Mankell is still writing and it seems every week yet another recently discovered Sognefjord Follett is out in translation. What is it about this genre and the North? As one Swedish critic said recently, ‘For a time we made tennis players, now it’s crime fiction.’ Is that it? The universe’s sense of fun? Chance? Consider the quality of what’s on offer – Steig Larsson if you can bear it but Mankell is as good a place as any. Wallander’s earlier career includes The Dogs of Riga, readable if only because there’s not a lot set in pre-collapse of communism Latvia and therefore can be enjoyed in the same way as some science fiction. Oh, the weirdness of it all! The bag over the head and the late-night careering along forest roads – for a rendezvous with friends. There’s even some heavy-handed humour. For instance Chief Inspector Morse, who predates Wallander but not by much, was never forced to leave a deposit in an archival waste basket when failing to find a lavatory, nor use several sheets of said archive as emergency Andrex. But poor structure and plotting show old hands like Dexter in a different league. The denouement of The Dogs of Riga is a murderous shootout that somehow fails to be in the least tense. To revert to Orwell yet again, he had a phrase for this sort of thing: With one bound he was free. And so Wallander survives for another dozen or so trips around the block. Of course the supposed strength (in commercial terms) of both Larsson’s and Mankell’s fiction is its weakness. Marketed as a classier version of the thriller, the inclusion of Big Ideas is somehow meant to give gravitas to a genre that the English-speaking world has been churning out for over a century. And it doesn’t stand up. Dan Brown was cleverly described as the novelist for people who don’t read novels. Larssen, Mankell, (and let’s not leave out the trailblazer, Peter Hoeg) are the literary thriller writers for people who don’t do literature. If the comic-book justice of Larsson dazzles (and no one with a decent heart can be unaffected, at least initially), take a long cool look at Mankell’s Italian Shoes, intended as a crossover piece: Kurt Wallander (let’s remind ourselves: fifty-something, dropped from his profession by one mistake too many, a loner with a history of relationship misfires and a difficult only daughter) has been jettisoned for a ‘straight’ story about Frederick Welin, sixty-something, a struck-off doctor, a loner with, yes, just the one difficult daughter. The same limited number of devices are trotted out, the same heavy-handed trio of metaphors in use over 350 pages – and all to inform us that it’s probably a good idea to be nice to each other: you’ll end up less lonely when you’re getting old. (Unless you’re currently watching Danmarks Radio’s The Killing, in which case you’ll age and die well before it ends.)

Just as Bjorn Borg inspired thousands of fit young Scandinavians bored with skiing to pick up a tennis racket, so a new generation of writers is now producing short-day slasher fiction – though the likes of Norwegian Jo Nesbo won’t be to everyone’s taste. Described as ‘The New Star of Scandinavian Crime Writing’, his stuff is what it is: violent, sadistic, depressing. His hero is named Harry Hole. ‘Nuff said. The fact that its creator appears to be a nihilist, the polar opposite of idealists Larssen and Mankell, makes it no better but no worse. The product’s much the same.

While writing this piece one quote from (I think) a translation of Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow came into my mind and stuck: ‘outside it was an outrageous -17 degrees’. Perhaps that clarification of intense cold gave a spurious glitter to the turgid pages I was revisiting. But -17 degrees also happens to be how low the temperature fell one night in Capel Curig during this last, interminable winter. As a lover and reader of the literary thriller it made me wonder why I’m not snuggled up in front of my log burner with the first in the Paul Prydderch series, Clean Slate?

…Prydderch, forty-something ex-serious crime squad, has returned to Blaenau, the place of his birth, minus promiscuous wife but carrying the burden of some pretty disturbing cases and the knowledge that he’s made enemies. On the morning after the lowest ever recorded temperature in Wales, Prydderch finds a thin, carmine trail leading from his cottage out into the icy waste beyond. Scarlet and silver are the perfect contrast. By eye he traces it up and over the adjacent spoil heap which, this December morning ‘looks frank and unsullied as Snowdon itself….’

I’d buy it.


previous vintage gems: The Poet I Might Have Been
next vintage gems: The Other Wales


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