#50 Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective

Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (Den döende detektiven), trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Doubleday, 2016 [2010]). 5 stars

dying-detective

Opening line: Karlbergsvägen 66 in Stockholm is the location of Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden.

Leif G.W Persson is a writer at the absolute top of his game. The Dying Detective is the seventh of his novels to appear in English, and is a gripping, absorbing, beautifully plotted read. Not only does it succeed brilliantly on its own terms, but deftly extends the universe of his previous novels, and, like another of his novels, Linda, pays homage to a giant of the crime genre in a truly inventive way.

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Readers of earlier Persson novels will remember Johansson as a brilliant investigator with an uncanny ability to ‘see around corners’. Now we find him frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery – a sobering depiction of the aftermath of a stroke – and drawn into the investigation of a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he has assembled a rag-tag team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

From the very beginning, the novel adds an extra level of complexity to the investigation of Yasmine’s case: the challenge for Johansson is not simply identifying the perpetrator, but figuring out what to do if he finds him, for a new statute of limitations means that the killer can’t legally be held to account for his crime. And this is where Persson’s literary homage comes in. Around two-thirds of the way through the novel, Johansson is shown praising Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and his Hangman), originally published in 1950. He states that a good book ‘can give you something to think about, and if it’s really good then reading it can even make you a better person. I’ve read this one several times’.

der-richter

In The Judge and his Hangman, Inspector Bärlach, who is in poor health and at the end of his career, does battle with an old adversary, a man who delights in committing crimes in such a way that the legal system can’t touch him. Bärlach is desperate to bring him to justice, but knows that he’ll have to act unlawfully to do so – a terrible dilemma for a policeman who has upheld the rule of law all his life. The novel stresses the illegality of Old Testament justice, but also the terrible moral consequences of such action for the self-appointed ‘judge’ or ‘hangman’. And that’s not all. A later Dürrenmatt novel, Das Versprechen (The Pledge, 1958), features a policeman who becomes obsessed with the unsolved murder of a young girl, and whose desperate need for justice leads him to act unethically. This clever ‘intertextuality’ is carried off by Persson with a light, expert touch. It’s like watching a jazz musician improvising brilliantly with the main melody of a song.

What a smart and versatile writer Persson is. He pulls off the big ‘state of the nation’ novels (his ‘Story of a Crime’ series) or the more intimate police investigation (Linda, As in the Linda Murder) with ease, creating an expansive universe in which characters move freely from one novel to another. Regular readers will undoubtedly feel rewarded by the appearance of many old friends in The Dying Detective, from Bo Jarnebring and Lisa Mattei to the shortsighted pathologist who bids good morning to the yukka plant in reception. A special word of praise, too, for long-time Persson translator Neil Smith, who does such an excellent job of capturing the author’s voice, and in particular his wry, often black humour.

The Dying Detective has been submitted for the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. It sets a very high bar!

You can see a list of Petrona Award eligibles over at Euro Crime.

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CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child

I’m just back from this year’s CrimeFest, which was particularly special for a number of reasons. This is the first of two posts on the event, and focuses on Lee Child’s interview with the legendary Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall.

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Maj Sjöwall and Lee Child at CrimeFest, Saturday 16 May (with thanks to the unknown photographer!)

Sjöwall, co-author of the highly influential ‘Martin Beck’ series with her husband Per Wahlöö, was the festival’s guest of honour. The almost mythical position she holds as the ‘godmother of Scandinavian crime’ was illustrated by the standing ovation she received on entering the room with Lee Child. What we heard from her in the course of the conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating:

  • The ‘Martin Beck’ series (1965-75) grew out of national and international events: 1960s Sweden was turning from a social democratic country to a more right-wing country, and it was the era of the Vietnam War and student demos. The series was designed to show what was happening to Swedish society and how the police was becoming more militarised, but in bumbling way, like a small-town police force.
  • They choose the crime genre as a vehicle because it was entertaining and would reach a wide audience. She and Per sat face to face over a table and worked together, talking extensively about the stories and the language they would use. The aim was to make the novels as accessible as possible.
  • In the case of Roseanne, the first novel, they’d been on a boat trip and seen a beautiful American woman travelling on her own. As Per was looking at her just a bit too closely, Maj decided, ‘we’ll kill her!’ (just one example of her splendidly wry humour).
  • Crime fiction wasn’t a big thing in Sweden at that time (just a few ‘bourgeois amateur sleuths’). There were no police procedurals. They wanted the novels to be realistic, so they kept the pace of the narrative slow and a created a police team rather than focusing on just one hero.
  • Their influences were Chandler, Hammett and Simenon. The American 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain were NOT a direct influence as is often thought. They only read these after they started writing the series. (Given the similarities between the two, one can only say that this was a remarkable case of synchronicity!)
  • The series took off around book three or four. But it tended to be read by young left-wingers who were already converted to the [Marxist] ideals and values it promoted. So as authors, they were not necessarily reaching the audience they wanted to influence.
  • Of police investigator Martin Beck: he is a ‘quite boring’, classic civil servant, ‘but has a very important quality – empathy’. He reflects the masculine police world of the time and is depicted realistically: he’s married to the job and has a complex relation-ship with his wife and children. The authors were criticised for this: it was felt that police in crime novels should not have a private life. Now it’s a big part of modern crime (Child added that it’s ‘almost a requirement’).
  • They decided on ten novels from the start, and thought of the series as one long novel that was split into ten (influenced by Balzac).

The ten novels in the series also match the number of letters in Martin Beck’s name.

  • Was the series successful in critiquing/changing Sweden? Maj responds by saying that she doesn’t think books can change the world, but that they can influence and help to change the ways that people think.
  • The novels were first translated into French and German, then later into English. Maj thinks they paved the way for other crime writers in those countries. [She’s certainly right in relation to West Germany, where the Beck series had a significant influence on the Soziokrimi (social crime novel) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Intriguingly, the series was also published in East Germany, which approved of the series’ political viewpoint].
  • Child sees the influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in Ian Rankin’s Rebus and other crime writing far beyond Scandi borders. In a brief Twitter conversation, Rankin told me: ‘Actually, I’m pretty sure I’d written a few Rebus novels before reading the Becks. On the other hand… it is feasible I’d been reading *about* the Becks and the notion of a real-time series may have chimed’.
  • Maj does not have explanation for why series is so popular. She likes the recent work of Leif G. W. Persson because he stays close to reality. But in her view too many contemporary crime novels are set in small towns and focus on personal narratives.
  • One of Maj’s favourite Beck novels is The Locked Room, due to its structure and logic, and the memories she has of writing it.

The Sjöwall interview was sponsored by British Institute for Literary Translation, which is very fitting: we would never have been able to read the Beck series without the services of marvellous translators like Lois Roth, Joan Tate, Alan Blair, Thomas Teal and Paul Britten Austin. Huge thanks to them! Here’s a list of the ‘Martin Beck’ novels and a few interesting links:

  • 1965 – Roseanna (Roseanna)
  • 1966 – Mannen som gick upp i rök (The Man who Went Up in Smoke)
  • 1967 – Mannen på balkongen (The Man on the Balcony)
  • 1968 – Den skrattande polisen (The Laughing Policeman)
  • 1969 – Brandbilen som försvann (The Fire Engine That Disappeared)
  • 1970 – Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy)
  • 1971 – Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle (The Abominable Man)
  • 1972 – Det slutna rummet (The Locked Room)
  • 1974 – Polismördaren (Cop Killer)
  • 1975 – Terroristerna (The Terrorists)
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A wonderful memento from a wonderful event

Coming up in the next CrimeFest post: The 2015 Petrona Award, Euro Noir and other international delights.

It’s Scandi time! Mankell’s An Event in Autumn, Indridason’s Reykjavic Nights and BBC4’s Crimes of Passion

This week, I’ve shared my evenings with two of my favourite Scandi authors, Henning Mankell (Sweden) and Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland).

A *beautiful* cover, don’t you think?

Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn (trans. by Laurie Thompson/Harvill Secker, 2014) was originally written for a Dutch crime event and adapted for an episode of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander in 2012. This beautifully packaged work is now published for the first time in English, and in terms of its chronology, is set just before the last novel in the series, The Troubled Man.

The book is described as a novella by the publisher and in accordance with that genre, is a little shorter than a novel. I can’t help wondering if Mankell’s title pays homage to Goethe’s view of the novella as focusing on ‘eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit’ (literally ‘an unheard of event that has taken place’ or more idiomatically ‘an unprecedented event’). Murder does fit that definition very nicely indeed.

The narrative opens in October 2002. Wallander is about to make an offer on a house when he discovers something dodgy in the garden: a long-ago crime has literally been unearthed and the policeman, with the help of daughter Linda, feels compelled to investigate, in a typically nuanced and engrossing tale. My favourite line: ‘It struck Wallander that nothing could make him as depressed as the sight of old spectacles no one wanted any more’ (p. 51).

Any hopes that more Wallander novels might be forthcoming are dashed in a little afterward by Mankell, so fans of the series had better savour this last work. However, there is an added bonus in the form of an essay by the author entitled ‘How it started, how it finished, and what happened in between’. Lots of lovely insights for the melancholy Ystad detective’s fans.

An Event in Autumn is published by Harvill Secker on 4. September 2014. With thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

As if that wasn’t enough, I then received a copy of Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights in the post (trans. by Victoria Cribb/Harvill Secker, 2014). I’d been hugely looking forward to this prequel to the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series and was barely able to put it down: it’s a wonderfully absorbing read that traces Erlendur’s journey from young policeman to detective as he investigates the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of a young woman. Set in 1974, the year Iceland celebrated 1100 years of settlement, we are given new insights into Erlendur’s character and how a traumatic childhood event will shape both his personal life and investigative career.

As was the case with Mankell’s The PyramidReykjavic Nights is a great introduction for new readers to the series. Alternatively, for those of us who have already had the pleasure, it provides a valuable context in which to place the ‘later’ works. Mr. Indridason, if you’re reading this, please do feel free to add some more… Takk fyrir!

Reykjavic Nights is published by Harvill Secker on 18. September 2014. With thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy. If you’re interested in Icelandic crime, then Iceland Noir, which takes place in Reykjavik from 20-23 November 2014, is also worth checking out.

And finally, some important BBC4 Saturday evening crime news. Today, 30th August 2014, sees the start of a new six-part Swedish series based on the 1950s novels of Maria Lang (the pseudonym of Dagmar Lange, a well known and prodigious crime author). The first episode of Crimes of Passion, entitled ‘Death of a Loved One’ airs at 9.00pm. The BBC4 summary is as follows:

>> Puck Ekstedt is invited by her university tutor to celebrate midsummer at his summer house on a secluded island, together with a group of friends including Einar Bure. Puck and Einar (Eje for short) are secretly courting and he is the reason she accepts the invitation. The summer nights are seductively beautiful until Puck finds one of the female guests murdered. Einar contacts his best friend Christer Wijk, a police inspector, to investigate. In the meantime, they are trapped on the island – and someone among them is a killer. <<

The series has been described as Mad Men meets The Killing. This sounds a bit too good to be true, but I will reserve judgement until this evening. You can see a short clip from the first episode on the BBC4 website.

#41 / Håkan Nesser, The Weeping Girl

Håkan Nesser, The Weeping Girl [Ewa Morenos Fall], translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London, Mantle 2013 [2000])  4 stars

Hmmm. Didn’t like this cover: at odds with the description of ‘the weeping girl’ in the book

Opening lineWinnie Maas died because she changed her mind. 

The Weeping Girl is the eighth in Håkan Nesser’s Inspector van Veeteren series, although its lead investigator is actually his very capable protégé Ewa Moreno, as signalled by its original title, Ewa Morenos fall (Ewa Moreno’s Case). I have to say that I much prefer the Swedish title: placing an emphasis on the figure of the policewoman rather than the ‘weeping girl’ who triggers the investigation feels right, as the novel offers a 360 degree portrait of Ewa’s professional life and personal circumstances. In this respect, it also reminded me of Indridason’s 1998 Icelandic crime novel Outrage, in which Elinborg takes centre stage.

Cover of the French translation, which retains the original title’s focus on the lead investigator

I’ve been a fan of Nesser’s work since reading Borkmann’s Point many moons ago (published in the UK in 2006). I remember loving the characterisation, the clever narrative construction, the gentle satirical humour, and the way the novel was situated in a generic European context, with people and place names that sound Dutch, German, Spanish or Polish. Six novels down the line, The Weeping Girl has maintained the very high standard of that earlier work (no mean feat this far into a series).

The novel uses a classic Golden Age trope: the detective pulled unexpectedly into an investigation while on holiday (e.g. Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane). Ewa is drawn into not just one but three investigations while staying in Port Hagen near Lejnice, the most prominent being the disappearance of a young woman, Mikaela, who has just discovered that her father – former school-teacher Arnold Maager – was convicted of murdering a teenager 16 years ago. Plotwise one could argue that there’s nothing especially new on offer here, but oh my, it’s extremely well done. Nesser balances the descriptions of the personal and professional aspects of Ewa’s life perfectly, provides us with a range of well-drawn and interesting characters (such as Lejnice police chief Vrommel), and combines the various narrative strands in such a way that makes you want to keep reading, but without ever feeling overloaded. All in all it’s a hugely enjoyable, quality read, and I’m now keen to catch up with the earlier novels in the series that I’ve missed.

A quick aside: the focus on team members other than the dominant investigator (such as van Veeteran or Erlendur) is a welcome development for the police procedural as far as I’m concerned, especially as it often places very interesting female investigators in the spotlight. It’s one I’ve only really just noticed, but must have been going since at least 1998 when Nesser published Münsters fall (Münsters Case)… Can anyone think of earlier examples?

Mrs. Peabody awards The Weeping Girl an expertly crafted and absorbing 4 stars

With thanks to Mantle for sending me a copy of this book (Petrona Award submission).

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The Bridge – Review of Episodes 1 and 2

At the centre of the 7,845 metre Oresund Bridge that links Denmark and Sweden, lying across the yellow line that marks the border between the two, the lifeless body of a woman is found. Although the victim at first appears to be Swedish, the national juristiction of the case turns out to be far from clear, leading a police officer from each country being assigned to the case. Swedish investigator Saga Noren (Sofia Helm) and her Danish counterpart Martin Rodhe (Kim Bodnia) both soon realise that they’ve been pulled into a difficult, bizarre and highly complex case.

Thus begins the acclaimed crime drama The Bridge/Bron/Broen, whose first episodes aired last night on BBC4 between 9.00 and 11.00pm.

Even from the title sequence, with its beautiful, nocturnal time-lapse photography and haunting theme (‘Hollow Talk’ by the Choir of Young Believers), it was clear that we were in for a treat. By the end of the first two episodes I was fully gripped, as the investigative narrative unfolded and two intriguing sub-plots took shape: a rich wife rushing her husband to hospital for a transplant operation, and a man helping a young woman escape an abusive husband, but with a murky past of his own.

In Saga Noren and Martin Rodhe we are given a classic investigative ‘odd couple’. Saga is a particularly interesting character, whose sometimes unconventional behaviour leads her colleagues to regard her as ‘a bit special’. She is a brilliant and knowledgeable investigator, who is ruthlessly logical and focused, and finds social niceties a baffling waste of time. As already discussed in the comments of an earlier post, it’s possible that she has a form of high-functioning autism. (In terms of other TV characters, she reminded me a bit of Star Trek‘s Seven of Nine!) Martin, by contrast, is more of an old school cop, who has a complicated private life and doesn’t always do things by the book, but who seems to take Saga’s behaviour (such as calling him in the early hours with a fresh lead) in his stride. The dynamic between the two looks promising.

- Hmm, not sure what I make of you.
- Feeling's mutual

Some other random observations at this point:

In contrast to The Killing, there are moments of genuine, albeit dark humour in The Bridge, which worked well for me. Watch out for Saga’s ‘romantic’ date (and make a note of how not to put off hunky Swedes the morning after).

The obligatory autopsy scene allows us to appreciate Saga’s intelligence and investigative focus (and was therefore justifiably included in my view). There are some quite graphic photos from the autopsy featured later on, but I’m hoping that’ll be it for now.

The series has an interesting 70s styling. Its palette of browns, oranges and beiges reminded me a little of the recent film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by the Swede Tomas Alfredson. One of the characters (flares, leather jacket, moustache) could have stepped straight out of Life On Mars.

I’m very much enjoying the transnational flavour of the series, which is evident in the Danish/Swedish credits, the characters’ dialogue, and of course the plot itself. And yes, they do all understand one another, but Martin has to repeat himself more s-l-o-w-l-y at one point so that the Swedes can follow him properly!

The murderer’s motives look complex and interesting: ‘if you had cared there would have been no victims’. It looks like the series will follow in the tradition of Swedish crime writing (Sjowall & Wahloo, Mankell) by foregrounding social issues. Mindful of spoilers, I shall say no more.

The Oresund Bridge looks remarkably like the Severn Bridge at times (Welsh-English remake please!).

Tonight’s episodes are both repeated and available on BBC iPlayer.

Below is a handy map with the Oresund Bridge to help with orientation: it joins Denmark and its capital city Copenhagen on the left and Sweden’s Malmo, the third largest city after Stockholm and Gothenburg, on the right.

Looking forward to next week’s episodes already!

BBC4 The Bridge – start date confirmed

FOR DETAILS ABOUT SERIES TWO SEE HERE.

With many thanks to Rhian for alerting me to the following:

The Swedish/Danish crime series The Bridge begins on Saturday 21 April at 9.00 pm. Two episodes will be aired that evening (totalling two hours). Further details are available via The Radio Times, which features Sofia Helin, one of the series’ stars, on its front cover this week.

A BBC4 press release describes the series thus: “The Bridge, a 10-part investigative crime drama, begins when the body of a woman is found in the middle of the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. A bi-national team is put together to solve the crime and the killer, always one step ahead of the police, becomes the object of a dramatic manhunt.”

The stars of The Bridge, Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia

Not only is The Bridge a Swedish/Danish co-production, it’s a bilingual one.

The original title (which appears on the cover of the DVD) is Bron/Broen, and dialogue is delivered in both languages, reflecting the operations of the bi-national investigative team. I’m not sure if this is a first, but I find the idea of a bilingual crime series quite fascinating (imagine, for example, a British/French series investigating a murder at the exact centre of the Channel Tunnel!). Do the Swedish and Danish investigators all understand/speak their opposite number’s language? Do they switch languages depending on the country they happen to be in? I won’t easily be able to tell, as the languages will only be fully comprehensible to me via subtitles, but perhaps someone can provide illumination!

I’ve heard many good things from those who’ve already watched the series and look forward to seeing it immensely.

Check out the wonderfully atmospheric title sequence with its time-lapse photography on YouTube. The title-track, ‘Hollow Talk’, is by the Danish group Choir of Young Believers.

BBC4 lines up a double helping of Swedes for 2012: Sebastian Bergman and The Bridge

While fruitlessly browsing BBC press releases for the start date of The Killing 2, I came across an interesting bit of news: two Swedish crime series (with Danish and German input) have been acquired by BBC4, and will air in 2012.

The press release describes them as follows:

The Bridge, a 10-part investigative crime drama, begins when the body of a woman is found in the middle of the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. A bi-national team is put together to solve the crime and the killer, always one step ahead of the police, becomes the object of a dramatic manhunt. The Bridge is a Danish/Swedish co-production.

START DATE FOR THE BRIDGE NOW CONFIRMED

Sebastian Bergman, a compelling new police thriller, stars Rolf Lassgård, one of Scandinavia’s most popular actors [the ‘first’ Wallander] in a powerful new role as profiler Sebastian Bergman.

Strong-headed, politically incorrect, abrasive and grief-stricken, Bergman has still not come to terms with the loss of his wife and daughter in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. In the first of the two thrillers, he helps police in his hometown solve the murder of a 15-year-old boy. In the second, he attempts to catch a serial killer who seems to be modeling his attacks on those of a jailed killer whom Bergman put behind bars himself.”

There’s a trailer available of Sebastian Bergman on ZDF Enterprises’ English-language website. It’s pretty dreadful (cheesy voiceover, gratuitous violence and pompous movie-trailer music).

I fervently hope that the programmes are better than the trailer suggests. I like Rolf Lassgård as an actor, and it would be a shame if he ended up in something sub-standard. The project has the same film-makers behind it as the Wallander film cycle, and expectations will be high.

UPDATE: The start date for Sebastian Bergman has now been confirmed in The Radio Times as Saturday 26 May 2012, 9pm.

My review of Episode 1 is now available here.

For the love of God, someone turn that music OFF!

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

#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.

#10 Dominique Manotti / Affairs of State

Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State, translated from the French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson (London: EuroCrime 2009 [2001]). A breathtaking exposé of political power games and corruption in 1980s Paris  4 stars

 

Opening sentence: Outside, it’s sunny, summer’s round the corner, but the offices of the RGPP, the Paris police intelligence service, are dark and gloomy with their beige walls, grey lino, metallic furniture and tiny north-facing windows overlooking an interior courtyard.

In one way, Affairs of State is less a crime novel than a tale of power and corruption, in which murders are inevitable as the stakes for political survival rise. In another, though, this is a crime novel through and through, in the sense that it dissects a bewildering range of criminal behaviour and leaves the reader looking at the world of politics through somewhat jaundiced eyes.

The spider at the centre of the web is François Bornand, a special advisor to the French President, who is guilty of all manner of corruption and decadence in the mid-1980s: the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, lucrative arms deals with Iran, and a never-ending consumption of high-class call girls.

Bornand is the ultimate survivor, and when information about his illicit activities threatens to reach the press, he uses a maverick security unit based at the Elysée, the very heart of the French political establishment, to protect his empire. As the bodies pile up, the novel focuses less on the puzzle of who commits each crime (readers are privy to the identities of all the murderers), than on the investigative efforts of the police and intelligence service, who would like nothing more than to bring Bornand down. In the process, we are shown the fascinating journey of rookie policewoman Noria Ghozali, who starts out at the periphery of the investigation, but makes the crucial shift into intelligence work by the end of the novel. Like one of the murder victims, Ghozali is of Arab extraction, and her battle for acceptance within the police force and wider society allows Manotti to examine French attitudes to gender and race in an uncompromising and very effective way.

What’s particularly fascinating about the novel is how closely it dares to reference the reality of French politics in the 1980s. The original title of the novel is Nos fantastique années fric, or ‘our fantastic years of dosh’, and Manotti sets out to critique what she describes in her afterword as ‘this decade in which money came to represent, for an entire political class, an end and a value in itself’. Particular venom is reserved for the Socialists who came to power with Mitterrand and who ‘assumed and practiced their new religion with the zeal of neophytes’.  A professor of economic history in Paris, Manotti demonstrates an acute understanding of the corrupting influence of money in political life – and this is really the novel’s central theme. Bornand appears to be a composite of several politicians of the time, outwardly respectable but tainted by a Vichy past, and bears a particularly marked resemblance to one individual (as I learned from Véronique Desnain’s paper at the Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference). Manotti sails remarkably close to the wind here, and I salute her bravery in doing so.

That having been said, there are elements of the narrative that are overly melodramatic, especially towards the end of the novel. But I suspect these are designed as symbolic indicators of corruption more than anything else – and they didn’t overly detract from the power of the narrative.

One lovely extra detail: it’s noted on the inside front cover that ‘this book is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’!

 A film of the novel, entitled Une affaire d’État, was released in 2009.

Mrs. Peabody awards State of Affairs an intrigue-filled 4 stars.