Eurotour Stop 6. Riga, Latvia: “He left the hotel and went in search of the bookshop”

Sveiki from Riga! Today’s extract is from…

Henning Mankell, The Dogs of Riga (trans. from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Vintage, 2004 [1992]). 

The extract is set in 1991, shortly after the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. Wallander has travelled to Riga to investigate a case.

“I’d like to go back to the hotel now,” Wallander said when Zids appeared in the doorway. “I have quite a lot of notes to write up in my room this evening. You can come and collect me at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”

When the sergeant had left him at his hotel, Wallander bought some postcards and stamps in reception. He also asked for a map of the city, but as the map the hotel had was not detailed enough, he was directed to a bookshop not far away.

Wallander looked around in the foyer, but couldn’t see anyone drinking tea or reading a newspaper. That means they’re still here, he thought. One day they’ll be obvious, the next they’ll be invisible. I’m supposed to doubt whether the shadows exist.

He left the hotel and went in search of the bookshop. It was already dark and the pavement was wet from sleet. There were a lot of people about, and Wallander stopped now and then to look in shop windows. The goods on display were limited, and much of a muchness. When he got to the bookshop, he glanced back over his shoulder: there was no sign of anybody hesitating mid-stride.

An elderly gentleman who didn’t speak a word of English sold him a map of Riga. He went on and on in Latvian, as if he took it for granted that Wallander could understand every word. He returned to his hotel. Somewhere in front of him was a shadow he couldn’t see. He made up his mind to ask one of the colonels the next day why he was being watched. He thought he’d broach the subject in a friendly fashion, without sarcasm or aggression.

He asked at reception if anybody had tried to contact him. “No calls, Mr Wallander, no calls at all,” was the answer.

He went to his room and sat down to write his postcards, moving the desk away from the window, to avoid the draught. He chose a card with a picture of Riga Cathedral to send to Björk.

It’s over twenty-five years since Wallander visited Riga. Latvia is now an EU member state with a fully functioning democracy and, while signs of the communist era are still visible (neglected old buildings waiting to be rescued), there is a sense of a society and an economy on the up. We’ve really enjoyed our time here.

Riga is full to the brim of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings built in the 1910s. Everywhere you look, there’s another gem.

But there are some stunning modern buildings as well, such as the Latvian National Library (or Glass Mountain, named after an important Latvian fairy tale).

There’s an enormous market down by the river too (four giant hangers), selling everything from mushrooms and pork to eel and pickles.

Riga’s old town feels much less twee than Tallinn’s. Here’s a bit of Riga Cathedral, as featured on Wallander’s postcard.

This is the imposing Freedom Monument (erected in 1935 to commemorate those who died in the War of Latvian Independence, 1918-20).

And the lovely park by it, where you can have a coffee and a pastry.

The orthodox Russian cathedral has some beautiful detail.

Lastly, here’s a view over the river Daugava, with a little remnant of Communism on one of the panels of the railing… which takes us back to Wallander in 1991.

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

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Jo Nesbø’s Harrogate Crime Festival interview on Radio 4’s Front Row

Newsflash! Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s interview with Mark Lawson at the Theakstons / Harrogate Crime Writing Festival will feature on tonight’s Front Row.

You can listen on Radio 4 at 19.15, or catch up later at the Front Row website, where the whole of the interview is also available (and most interesting it is too).

Nesbø  will also feature in the ‘Foreign Bodies’ series which Lawson is presenting for Radio 4 from 22 October (see previous post for further details). Harry Hole is one of the 15 fictional detectives used by the series to explore how crime writing depicts the history of modern Europe.

Image for Foreign Bodies

Copyright BBC Radio 4

Also spotted: the ‘Front Row Crime Writers Collection’ – a marvellous set of interviews with leading crime novelists including Henning Mankell, Andrea Camilleri, Val McDermid, P.D. James and John le Carré.

This, that and the other…

This … is an interview with Jo Nesbo by James Kidd, which appeared in The Independent over the weekend. Topics covered include Anders Breivik, Nesbo’s father and the publication of the old/new Harry Hole novel The Bat. The interview was carried out following Nesbo’s sell-out appearance at the Theakstons / Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July.

That is another interview by Kidd (and now I’m really jealous) of Henning Mankell, on the publication of his novel The Shadow Girls (originally published in Sweden in 2001). While not crime fiction, the social critique that’s found in Swedish crime writing in general and Mankell’s works in particular is very much evident in this work.

The other … is a provocative piece by American mystery editor Otto Penzler in Publishers Weekly, entitled ‘Why the Best Mysteries are Written in English’. A number of arguments are put forward by Penzler (albeit not always with total clarity) to justify this grand assertion, and a lively set of responses have now accrued in the comments section, which make for an entertaining read.

Series 3 of Branagh’s Wallander returns to BBC1

Good news for Wallander fans: three new, 90-minute Wallander episodes starring (ahem) Sir Kenneth Branagh begin airing on BBC1 on Sunday 8 July.

An Event in Autumn (based on Mankell’s short story ‘The Grave’)
The Dogs of Riga (the second in the original series of novels)
Before the Frost (the ninth in the series, featuring daughter Linda Wallander)

The episodes are a Left Bank Pictures/Yellowbird/TKBC Production for the BBC.

I’m looking forward to this third series, even though I’ve seen almost all of the Swedish Wallander adaptations already. While obviously not in Swedish (and insisting on a grating, anglicised pronunciation of the detective’s name), these English-language adaptations offer a strong central performance by Branagh (who won a BAFTA for series 2), as well as some stunning cinematography of Swedish landscapes.

None of that formal nonsense: just call me ‘Sir Ken’

As a very interesting article by Vicky Frost in today’s Guardian reveals, Branagh also has a final set of adaptations in mind – The White Lioness (the third in the series) and The Troubled Man (the last novel), the latter probably in two parts. Mind you, I’m not sure Branagh looks worn out or old enough yet to portray Wallander right at the end of his career: he needs to have a few more sleepless nights and age around 20 years!

A BBC trailer for the series is now available. Looks good.

UpdateReview of Episode 1 now posted.

Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

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#18 Jan Costin Wagner / The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner, The Winter of the Lions, translated from German by Anthea Bell (London: Harvill Secker, 2011 [2009]). The third novel in the beguiling Kimmo Joentaa series. 4 stars

 Opening sentence:  Kimmo Joentaa had been planning to spend the last hours of Christmas Eve on his own, but it didn’t turn out like that.

I was given a copy of The Winter of the Lions by my lovely brother for Christmas (following a sisterly nudge in the right direction) and it proved to be the perfect festive read, as the novel’s action begins on 24th December and ends on New Year’s Eve. The evocative cover, with its snowy Finnish birches, also made the novel an attractive winter gift.

Regular readers to this blog will know that I’m a firm fan of of the Kimmo Joentaa series, which, intriguingly, is set in Finland but is authored by a German whose wife is Finnish. The novels are suffused with nordic melancholia, and are in large measure a study of grief, as the first novel, Ice Moon, opens with the death of Detective Joentaa’s young wife. Thus, while each book contains a discrete police investigation, collectively they trace the arc of Joentaa’s grief and the slow process by which he comes to terms with his loss. The Winter of the Lions, set around three years later, sees him embarking on a fragile and rather unconventional new relationship with a women he meets through his duties as a policeman.

One of the big strengths of the series is its focus on the characters within the police team, in a way that’s reminiscent of Scandinavian writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Mankell. Joentaa isn’t the only team member with problems, and there are some very human depictions of individuals trying to juggle the demands of their professional lives with the stresses and strains of life beyond the office. In this novel, however, the team also has to deal with the collective trauma of one of their own being murdered. Forensic pathologist Patrik Laukkanen is found dead on a snowy cross-country ski trail in the forest, the victim of a frenzied knife attack. Soon afterwards, another man is found stabbed, and when the link between the two victims is established it proves to be a strange one: both were guests on the popular Hamalainen talk show. As the front cover tantalisingly points out, ‘careless talk costs lives’…

As in previous Joentaa novels, sections of the narrative are written from the murderer’s point of view, and we gradually build up a picture of their character and the circumstances that have led them to commit their crimes. The murderer in The Winter of the Lions is portrayed with sensitivity and a degree of sympathy, although the consequences of his/her crimes for the families of the victims are also carefully spelled out. Here, again, trauma and grief are key themes, and as in Ice Moon, there are some intriguing similarities between the murderer and the investigator whose job it is to track him/her down.

I enjoyed The Winter of the Lions almost as much as the previous two Joentaa novels (although I missed the presence of Ketola, Joentaa’s former boss), and will certainly be back for more. At the end of this third book, I realise that the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.

For other Mrs P. posts on the Joentaa series see Ice Moon and Silence.

The first few chapters are available via the Random House website.

Incidentally, Silence was made into a German film in 2010 (entitled Das letzte Schweigen [the final silence]. You can see the trailer here, which looks great and makes wonderful use of the Finnish *summer* landscape (for a change). It’s in German, but don’t let that put you off!

Mrs Peabody awards The Winter of the Lions a snow and vodka fuelled 4 stars.

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British and Swedish Wallander Series 3 in production with Yellow Bird

Many thanks to Lynda for drawing my attention to the following:

Michael Pickard at C21Media.net reports that Swedish production company Yellow Bird is busy with both the third series of the Swedish Wallander, starring Krister Henriksson, and the third series of the British Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh in the title role.

Production for the British version is due to complete in 2012 (3 x 90 minute episodes) and for the Swedish version in 2013 (6 x 90 minute episodes). It will be the final Swedish series, which I’m guessing means that they will close with The Troubled Man.

19 June 2012: an update on Branagh’s Wallander is available in this new post.

A picture of Branagh’s Wallander…for a change

Review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: British espionage thriller meets Swedish crime

I never thought I’d say this, but I was glad of some Welsh rain this afternoon, as it gave me and Mr. Peabody the perfect opportunity to go to the cinema. There, we treated ourselves to the 1970s espionage fest that is Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from the John le Carré classic of 1974.

The film has received rave reviews, including a rare 5 stars from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, and I can understand why: this is film-making of the highest quality, which is beautifully acted and styled, and recreates a tense Cold War atmosphere to perfection.

Although the plot is fiendishly complex in places, with some mind-boggling twists and turns, the fundamentals of the story are always clear. There is a Soviet mole in the highest echelons of the British Secret Service, working for ‘Karla’, the enigmatic head of the KGB. It falls to George Smiley, a forcibly ‘retired’ senior intelligence officer, to flush the mole out. The spy has to be one of four people, all of whom Smiley has worked with for years, and so he is dealing not just with a political betrayal, but with a long-running personal betrayal as well.

The film allows Smiley’s investigation to unfold at a leisurely pace, as he tracks down the key players whose recollections will allow him to identify the mole. We are also shown Smiley’s own memories of past events (including a Christmas office party with Le Carré as an extra), which he is forced to view with new eyes – a painful process that reveals how one person’s betrayal has undermined all their supposed achievements down the years. Seeing things clearly is a dominant theme: early in the film, Smiley visits an optician’s and emerges with a new pair of glasses – the big, rectangular type worn by Alec Guinness’s Smiley in the 1970s TV adaptation. But this is much more than simple homage to the famous earlier series: the new glasses have a deeply symbolic function, showing how Smiley has sharpened his vision, in order to see the truth properly for the first time.

The acting is excellent throughout. Gary Oldman is a wonderfully controlled Smiley, whose close-ups reveal, through the minutest of facial movements, the tensions that lie beneath. There are also wonderful performances by John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Kathy Burke (who has possibly the best line of the whole film). Hats off, as well, to the film’s cinematographers, stylists, and lighting crew, who evoke a gloomy 70s Britain so perfectly: there’s no James Bond glitz or glamour here, just a succession of dark, windowless secret-service offices and hideouts, in a 1970s palette made up almost exclusively of browns (from beige to fawn to mud and a thousand shades in-between). The humdrum office life of the secret service is beautifully depicted (Trebor Mint, anyone?) and in some ways the whole story can be read as just mundane office-room politics, with various divisional heads pitted against one another for supremacy over the years … albeit with more geo-political issues and human lives at stake than your average workplace.

So how does a review of this seemingly ultra-British film end up on a transnational crime blog? Well, the film was co-funded by France’s StudioCanal, and the director, Tomas Alfredson, is Swedish. Best known for his 2008 vampire film Let the Right One In, Alfredson has done a tremendous job of adapting le Carré’s depiction of the classic Cold War crimes of treachery and betrayal. And in its understated style and underlying melancholia, I see this film connecting back to Swedish crime writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Henning Mankell, whose investigative figures, like Smiley, plod their way in a dogged and melancholy fashion towards the truth.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the quintessential British espionage thriller meets the best of Swedish crime writing. It’s a winning combination and I can only hope that the other two novels in the Karla Trilogy will make it to the big screen via the same film-making team.

There’s also a lovely A-Z of TTSS from The Guardian available here.

#11 Henning Mankell / The Troubled Man

Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London: Harvill Secker 2011 [2009]). Wallander’s final case, in which he faces his biggest challenge yet 5 stars

Opening sentence: The year Kurt Wallander celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday, he fulfilled a long-held dream.

While at the airport bookshop before going on holiday, I spotted Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man, a novel I’ve been looking forward to reading for a good year. After a few moments I decided rather regretfully to resist, as I wasn’t sure the Very Last Wallander would make for a cheery holiday read. Later that day, while exploring the hotel, I came across the usual bookshelf of novels left by other holidaymakers. There, but of course, was another copy of The Troubled Man, at which point I gave in, put aside the carefully selected crime novels I’d brought with me and, armed with a hanky, started to read.

Before saying any more I should confess that I am a thoroughly biased reviewer when it comes to this Swedish writer and series. I have loved all the Wallander novels, and it would have taken a complete car-crash of a book for me to rate it anything other than five stars. So a five it is – and in some senses this is a rating for the entire series, which is referenced numerous times in various ways throughout the book.

Troubled Men

The first troubled man of the title is Hakan von Enke, a retired Swedish naval official and the father of Linda Wallander’s partner Hans, who disappears into thin air one day while out on his regular walk. Shortly before he vanishes, Hakan voices some concerns to Wallander about an unsettling naval incident that took place in 1982 involving a Russian submarine. Not long afterwards, Hakan’s wife Louise also disappears. To help a distraught Linda and Hans, Wallander begins an unofficial investigation, and uncovers an espionage story that reaches back into the complex history of the Cold War. This forms the central case within the novel, and is an absorbing and well-constructed read (albeit with the odd loose end that’s rather too casually tied up at the end). As ever, Mankell challenges us to question our assumptions, in this case about the dominant historical narrative of the Cold War years – there are a number of enjoyable and unexpected twists that force us to see key events in a whole new light.

The second troubled man, of course, is Kurt Wallander himself, whose personal and working life is overshadowed by a growing anxiety, in spite of the joy that becoming a grandfather brings. Now at the age of sixty, when most people start reflecting on their lives and the choices they have made, Wallander becomes a vehicle for Mankell to explore some very large themes: the value of family ties, the passing of time, the individual’s fear of losing his or her identity and, of course, death. There’s very much a feeling of closing the circle, with a number of references to Rydberg (Wallander’s mentor early in the series), Wallander’s late father (whose relationship with his son was often fraught), Baiba Leipa (his one-time love from The Dogs of Riga), and individuals from past cases (such as the husband of the victim in The White Lioness). For anyone who has travelled with Wallander down the long and winding road of this ten book series, it can’t help but be an absorbing, poignant and moving read.

One final word: if you’ve not yet read the earlier Wallander books, or if there are any in the series that you need to catch up on, I would strongly recommend doing so before embarking on The Troubled Man, which should be read at the end of the sequence as the author intends.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Troubled Man a slightly mournful, but deeply satisfying 5 stars.

Other Mankell/Wallander links you may enjoy

Henning Mankell’s official website

In the Footsteps of Wallander – a PDF guide to the locations featured in the books, films and TV series.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction – a blog that does what it says on the tin.

BBC4’s Wallander – Series 2 with Krister Henriksson

BBC4 has started repeating the second series of Swedish TV’s Wallander (2009-10) on successive Saturdays at 9pm. I managed to catch up with the first episode today, having had a prior engagement with Wales’ finest, The Manic Street Preachers, in Cardiff last night (splendid as ever).

This series has Krister Henriksson in the lead role. As I’ve noted in the past, I’ve always been more partial to Rolf Lassgård’s portrayal of Wallander in the film adaptations of Mankell’s novels between 2004 and 2007. But I’ve decided to give Henriksson a proper go, having realised that I’d only caught odd episodes with him over the years, rather than watching an entire series through from start to finish.

Krister Henriksson

This Saturday’s episode (21 May), entitled ‘The Revenge’  (‘Hämnden’), begins with Wallander celebrating his move to a dream house by the sea. The party is rudely interrupted by an apparent terrorist act, the bombing of Ystad’s power-station, which plunges the town into darkness. The next morning, a man is found murdered in his home, and the rather hungover investigative team is forced to ask: are the two crimes coincidence or could they be in some way linked?

I really enjoyed this opener. Based on an original storyline rather than on one of the Mankell novels, it was well-plotted, well-written and had a few nice spine-tingler moments (keep plenty of spare torches to hand in case of a power cut, everyone). The acting was excellent, and there was promising interplay between Wallander and the rest of the team, especially trainee policewoman Isabell Melin, who challenges Wallander’s rather outdated views on gender. The episode also introduces public prosecutor Katarina Ahlsell, one of those strong female characters of whom Mrs P. is so fond (played by Lena Andre, who also plays Erika Berger in the Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

While drawing on original material, the episode still feels very Wallander-y. Its tone is very close to that of the books, successfully incorporating social critique into the narrative of the police investigation.

And the rather morose-looking Henriksson as Wallander? Yes, alright, there’s some promise there. I’ll do my best to put Rolf to one side for now and let Henriksson do his stuff.

Episode 1 is repeated this coming Wednesday, and will be available on iplayer for another few days.

Update – 16 July. I’ve just watched the 9th episode in the series, ‘The Angel of Death’. At this point, I find that I’ve grown to appreciate Henriksson’s quieter, steadier depiction of Wallander. But oh dear, what a crazy, melodramatic conclusion this episode had! It knocked down a number of stereotypes, only to replace them with an even larger one when the murderer and his/her motivation was revealed. Tsk!

Update – 16 August I’ve just caught up on the 13th and final episode in the series, ‘Vittnet’ (The Witness), which was very good. The story focused on the trafficking and exploitation of illegal workers, and the difficulties of successfully prosecuting those at the top due to the intimidation of witnesses, as well as members of the police and judicial system (such as Wallander and Katarina). There was a nice dissection of the way that Swedish local government and firms subcontract their business for a reduced price to others, and then turn a blind eye to the horrendous working hours and conditions on their building sites. This probably sounds a bit worthy and dry, but wasn’t, as there was a strong human dimension to the storylines, and a touchingly upbeat ending, which I rather liked, having just read The Troubled Man (review to follow soon).